HL Deb 02 December 1996 vol 576 cc459-61

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to continuing violations of human rights by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime in Burma (Myanmar).

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Burma. We have issued several statements in recent weeks, most recently with our EU partners on 15th November, condemning violations of human rights in Burma. We shall continue to put pressure on the ruling State Law and Order Council both bilaterally and in international fora such as the United Nations to implement democratic reform and full respect for human rights.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, which will give much comfort to many of the suffering people in Burma. Is he aware that while considerable media attention has been rightly given to the great courage shown by the political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, much less media attention is given to the very widespread suffering of many of the ethnic minorities such as the Karen and the Karenni, many of whom are suffering from military offensives, torture, slave labour and massacres and have been forced to flee in their thousands to refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border? Can he say what the Government are doing to raise these matters in terms of political and humanitarian concerns against the violation of human rights by the SLORC regime?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, probably the most effective recent political action was on 28th October when the EU agreed a common position on Burma which imposed a ban on entry visas for senior members of SLORC and the military and the suspension of high level bilateral government visits to Burma. We are concerned about the plight of the Karen, the Mon and the Karenni. We are also concerned that forced relocations in Shan and Kayah states have resulted in a new influx of refugees into Thailand. The Thai Government have made it clear that refugees will be humanely treated and not returned until it is safe for them to be returned. We support the relief work in refugee camps, health and schooling facilities and teacher training. Since 1992-93, we have provided about £630,000 in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there was some small evidence of improvement in the receptiveness of SLORC earlier in the year? Does he further agree that the decision of ASEAN to accept Burma as a member next year provides a much better opportunity to achieve something real than pressures from the former European colonial powers, which are deeply and increasingly resented by virtually every ASEAN member and are totally counterproductive as far as concerns SLORC?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the admission of Burma into ASEAN is a matter for ASEAN and not for us. However, we continue to encourage ASEAN members, collectively and individually, to use their influence to encourage real reform in Burma. We very much support that.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, whatever encouragement might be offered locally to improve the regime in Burma, if the European Commission confirms the recommendation to suspend European GSP trade privileges to Burma, will Her Majesty's Government support that condition?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the forced labour position in Burma is currently being investigated by the European Commission. The EU will then decide what action to take in the light of the Commission's proposals.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I had intended only to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he agrees that we have had enough of quiet diplomacy and that it would be as well if we were to support, if we have not already done so, the Americans in refusing World Bank money to people who do not satisfy good government criteria. However, I should like also to take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Marsh. I cannot agree that it would be anything but right for us to support the Karen, who were our friends and our comrades in a dangerous and difficult war. That is not colonialism. That is honour and supporting our friends. I would hope that we will be seen to do that by the ordinary people of Burma. I cannot believe that the SLORC government, if they claim to be a soldiers' government, are so lost to honour as not to understand that.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we are certainly concerned about the Karen. We believe that it is appropriate to express that concern in both a multilateral and a bilateral way. That is what we are doing.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Minister in another place, Mr. Jeremy Hanley, said that the recent Amnesty International reports on political prisoners in Burma make grim reading? Is he further aware that Myanmar has declared this to be a year of tourism in which it intends to encourage visits by travellers from Britain and other European countries? In those circumstances, will the Foreign Office consider collaborating with Amnesty International in the production of a note which could be issued to anyone who makes inquiries of the FCO about the propriety of going there so that at least they have a health warning about the state of human rights in the country they propose to visit?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we have no present plans to discourage tourism to Burma. We believe that it is up to individuals to decide.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, how does the Minister reconcile pursuing the ideal, while facing the reality, given that there are many countries, most notably in ASEAN and France, who send conflicting messages by not placing conditionality on their inward investment into Burma? What is the Government's position on UK investors?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we are not taking any steps to encourage inward investment. The attitude of the ASEAN countries and France must be for them.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, while it is for ASEAN countries to make up their minds about the admission of Burma to that organisation, is it not rather surprising that they should have decided to do this within a year and just a few days after a report by a major UN committee on human rights condemning political repression in Burma and after President Clinton had made similar condemnation only last week? In the light of that, can the Minister tell the House what further pressure or action the Government intend to take in discussing this matter with ASEAN countries?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, as I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, it is up to ASEAN to decide whether it admits Burma or not. We encourage its members, as I said earlier, to use their influence to encourage real reform in Burma. It might well be that if Burma does join ASEAN that could exert greater influence than being outside that body.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, can my noble friend elaborate a little on the refugee situation on the Burmese borders? Can he say how well they are being looked after and whether the state of the refugees is all right?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I do not believe that the state of refugees is ever all right. However, we are supporting the Burma border consortium this year by an increased amount, which is now up to £150,000.

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