§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
rose to call attention to the plight of Karen refugees on the Burmese/Thai border and to the continued violations of human rights by the Burmese military regime; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am indebted to the Cross-Bench Members of your Lordships' House for facilitating this evening's debate. At the outset I should like to refer to two messages I have received. The noble Countess, Lady Mountbatten of Burma, wrote to me in a letter dated 20th March:I am so pleased to hear there is to he a debate in the House of Lords on human rights violations in Burma and the situation of the Karen people. I know what a high regard my father had for the Karens and the sacrifices they made to help us win the appallingly difficult Burma Campaign. I do hope a way will he found to help these apparently 'Forgotten Allies'—whose aim is surely the same as ours in this country—that of working for the Democracy which we prize so much".I have also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who has a long and distinguished interest in the plight of the Karen people. She is overseas at present but would wholeheartedly wish to be associated with the concerns which will be expressed today.
In your Lordships' House there are many who had first-hand experience of the horrors of World War II and who saw active service in India, Burma and the Far East. Some, such as my noble friend Lord Chalfont, personally commanded Karen soldiers, 50,000 of whom gallantly and bravely fought alongside us as allies during the hostilities with the Japanese. Many Karen 1293 suffered torture and death at the hands of the Japanese. So loyal were the Karen to the British that General Slim wrote,The Karen are no fair-weather friends".Yet, like the noble Countess, Lady Mountbatten, General Saw Bo Mya, president of the Karen National Union and holder of the Burma Star, poignantly describes the Karen people as "our forgotten allies". Certainly, despite appalling brutality, carnage and violations of human rights reminiscent of the worst atrocities of World War II, this is a forgotten conflict—one given only sparse and intermittent coverage.
Throughout the 1940s the Karen were led to believe that at the war's end Britain would grant them independence in a free Karen state. Instead, 50 years ago a Burmese-led government were given territorial rights over more than 100 different ethnic minorities. The largest of these, the Karen—now thought to number some 7 million people—were, within a year, locked into a civil war which continues to this day. It is one of the world's longest running civil wars. In the past five years alone, an estimated 20,000 Karen people have been killed by the Burmese military. Burma is beset by two struggles—one is the struggle for democracy, personified by the bravery of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other is the struggle of abused peoples struggling for self-determination.
At the end of last month I undertook a fact-finding mission on behalf of the human rights group, the Jubilee Campaign, to the Burma-Thai border area. I visited both sides of the border and saw for myself the conditions in which the Karen military are fighting a desperate battle against the phenomenal might of the Burmese military: some 5,000 to 10,000 troops pitted in jungle warfare against some 350,000 Burmese soldiers. I also visited several of the refugee camps to which predominantly Karen people have been fleeing, an exodus which began 14 years ago. One hundred and sixteen thousand people now live in the camps, 95,000 of whom are Karen, and more than 10,000 more are hiding in jungle areas on the Burma side of the border, desperate to escape. The regime has been systematically clearing out whole villages, forcibly resettling villagers and conscripting others as forced labour. Those who try to escape are shot on sight. The Burmese military have transformed their country into a vast concentration camp where there is genocide on a par with that practised in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Even when the refugees arrive in the camps, their suffering is not over. Although the Thai authorities must be commended for permitting the creation of the camps on their territory, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has never been given a permanent presence in the camps. UNHCR's director for relief operations, Amelia Bonifacio, is based hundreds of miles away. She told me,We have no one on the border at all; we have no permanent presence. It is not a satisfactory arrangement because we have to seek authorisation from the Thai government every time we wish to visit".The Thai Government do not even officially recognise the people in the camps as refugees.
1294 There is also a widespread belief among the camp dwellers that the Thais wish to develop their burgeoning economic relationship with Burma and that, to appease their aggressive neighbours, they would like to repatriate the refugees at the earliest opportunity. Although I welcome yesterday's protest by the Thai deputy foreign minister, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, to the Burmese ambassador in Bangkok, following Monday's attack on the Mawker refugee camp (one of those which I visited) the Thai Government should also review some of their own practices. For instance, tighter restrictions on movement now permanently confine the refugees to their camps. At one camp which I visited, Bekhlo, I saw a pen where any refugee crossing the perimeter without permission is taken. Stripped to their underwear, they are left there in the burning sun and, if their relatives cannot afford to redeem them, they are repatriated. Some have been taken by truck and simply tipped into the nearby River Moi.
Nor are the camps safe from direct attack. The Burmese military and their allies, the DKBA—the so-called Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—regularly carry out cross-border raids, attacking and killing Karen refugees. At about 1 a.m. on 11th March, a combined force of about 50 Burmese troops and DKBA soldiers attacked Hwayka Loke camp, also known as Wangka. The camp was burnt to the ground. About 40 refugees were injured in the raid and five killed, including a pregnant woman, a four year-old boy and a 15 year-old girl, who suffered 70 per cent. burns. The camp, with a population of 8,769 refugees, was previously burnt down in an attack by Burmese military on 28th January 1997.
On 23rd March, Her Majesty's Government, in a parliamentary Answer to a Question which I tabled to the Minister, called on the Burmese regime,to investigate the incident and to prevent such attacks in future .— [Official Report, 23/3/98; col. WA229.]The DKBA collaborate with the Burmese military, and it makes little sense to ask them to investigate what they instigate.
Naw Bway Tee, an 85 year-old Karen grandmother, was killed instantly on 29th January 1997 Burmese military fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Bekhlo refugee camp. Another elderly woman in her 70s was seriously injured and later died. A 10 year-old girl, Hsa Gler Mu, sustained serious shrapnel wounds to the stomach. I met the little girl. I met the son of the woman who was killed.
The situation in the camps pales almost into insignificance in comparison with the situation in Burma itself. Known since November 1997 as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—its policy is to counter the armed resistance of Karen guerillas by attacking the Karen civilian population until they can no longer support any opposition. That is the fundamental idea behind the so-called "four cuts" policy (cutting supplies of food, funds, recruits and intelligence to the resistance) which General Ne Win initiated in the 1970s.
1295 The systematic and direct attacks by the Burmese army upon Karen civilians are characterised by mass forced relocations, forced labour and destruction of villages. One American missionary who had just returned from the Karen state told me:Desolation is everywhere. I saw abandoned rice fields, empty villages, destroyed homes. Field upon empty field. The land was desolate. Not even the birds sing".Christians, Moslems and Buddhist monks have all been terrorised. Ten-thousand Moslems from all over Burma now live in the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Dr. Abdul Razzak, the chairman of the All Burma Moslem Union told me that 42 mosques have been destroyed. Moslems have regularly been arrested and pressed into forced labour. The Burmese military have also subjected them to humiliations which offend their religious belief—such as being forced to eat pork—and have taken their animals and possessions and destroyed whole villages.
In the time that I have, perhaps I may give just one or two other examples. In 1996, Burmese soldiers raped four Karen women in the Pa Pun district. They then killed two of the women, who were pregnant, by stamping on their bellies. They murdered the other two by driving sharpened bamboo stakes into them. Saw Wah Lay, aged 34, says that in June 1997,Some people went to get some rice and the Burmese met with them and shot them. They shot at a child. Both of his legs were broken. And they killed the child. They smashed his head. His mother was shot in the chest and died too. Now the villagers do not dare stay in our village any more. They have gone to stay all over the place".International action to combat these violations and abuses should be taken as a matter of urgency before more lives are lost. I have some suggestions to make. First, there need to be international economic sanctions against Burma to isolate the Burmese regime and deprive it of the resources to buy arms and other weapons of destruction. Only humanitarian resources such as food and medicine should be exempted from such sanctions. Years of attempts at so-called constructive engagement with the Burmese regime have only emboldened it in human rights violations. The number of atrocities committed by the regime have increased. The Burmese army has also had no hesitation in conducting repeated raids on refugee camps in Thailand in flagrant violation of Thailand's sovereignty and international law. There should be increased pressure by the British Government, with the European Union, for tough EU economic sanctions against Burma. Britain should use its seat on the UN Security Council to call for an international embargo against Burma.
Britain should also encourage ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which admitted Burma to its membership, to place pressure on the Burmese regime over its human rights record. On 3rd and 4th April, government leaders from Asia and Europe will meet in London. That summit will focus on trade and investment. But the British Government should also use the opportunity to raise concerns about Burma. Our position is much weaker than that adopted 1296 by the United States Administration which, on 20th May 1997, prohibited US nationals from investigating or engaging in economic activity in Burma.
In addition, we should have permanent monitors of human rights abuses in Burma—a UNHCR permanent presence in the camps. There should be no forced repatriation. There should be freedom of movement for refugees.
Clearly, the best hope for the Karen and all Burmese people will be the overthrow of a regime which is a byword for all that is bestial and brutal. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are the legitimate government and the best hope for Burma. She says:The sufferings of our Karen brothers and sisters are our very own sufferings".I pray that our Government and the international community will do all in their power to relieve that suffering, remember a people and a conflict too long forgotten, and honour a debt too long unpaid. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, it is an important role of Parliament to draw attention to matters which may not have a direct impact upon our own domestic economy but which are nevertheless matters of honour. The impositions suffered by the Karen people in northern Burma and the atrocities so graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. are an important example of that. I congratulate him on having managed to visit the area which has for too long been closed to visitors and on having initiated the debate this evening.
The fate and the future of the Karen people are without doubt a matter of honour, not just for those of us who participated in the Burma Campaign during the last war but for all of us who now enjoy peace, thanks to the loyalty and bravery of the Imperial Indian Army in Burma. It was the largest volunteer army that the world has ever known: 2 million men and women under arms, every one a volunteer. I had the privilege of serving with my regiment, the 19th King George V's Own Lancers in the Arakan, so I did not have direct contact with the Karens. But we should never forget that the Burma Rifles, which recruited Karens, Chins and Kachins, fought with great loyalty and bravery in all theatres of the Burma Campaign, particularly in the heroic defence of the gateway to India, in Imphal and Khohima.
The Karens in particular were recruited and formed part of V Force and Force 136 which penetrated deep into Burma and operated behind the Japanese lines. As the noble Lord. Lord Alton. said, if captured they were routinely tortured before being killed by the Japanese.
The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, distinguished son of our highly respected and much loved General Bill Slim, will speak in this debate. General Slim said of the Karens, as the noble Lord. Lord Alton, said, that,they were far from being just fair weather friends".1297 How true that was, because those of us who fought in that campaign and experienced that kind of weather will know that it was nearly always foul weather.
Unhappily, despite the contribution of the Karens to final victory, the British Government never fulfilled their promise on the partition of India in 1947 to give the Karens an independent state. Had they done so, it is unlikely that those courageous people would be engaged in a long and damaging struggle with the present Burmese Government.
That is why I have called it a debt of honour and why we have an obligation to make amends by using our influence in the European Union and the United Nations to bring heavy pressure upon the Myanmar Government, the Burmese Government, and as members of the Commonwealth—and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said this—as Burma was made a full member of ASEAN, we must persuade ASEAN to bring pressure on the Burmese Government to stop the atrocities.
Those atrocities have caused thousands of refugees to seek refuge in Thailand and also to some extent in India and Bangladesh. The refugees are often considered by the Thais in particular to be illegal immigrants. They are deported hack to the border, where, in the words of one 60 year-old witness, they are hunted down by the Burmese Army and killed "like wild animals". It is not only a debt of honour; it is a scandal and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, if it were happening in our own continent, the United Nations would long ago have stepped in to stop it.
I hope this debate will encourage the UN to do so in northern Burma and that Her Majesty's Government will take a lead in repaying our debt of honour to the Karen people.
Those of us who formed part of the so-called "forgotten army" have an obligation to seek to ensure that this is not a forgotten conflict. That is the real importance of the debate tonight.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Alton said, I have a special reason for congratulating him and thanking him for initiating the short debate today. When I was on active service in the Burma jungle in the Second World War, the Karen people were among our staunchest friends and allies. My Army commander in those days was one of our outstanding battlefield generals, General, later Field Marshal, Bill Slim, the father of my noble friend who sits behind me today. Field Marshal Slim wrote of the Karen people in his book Defeat into Victory, his story of the Burma campaign, that they are:a race which had remained staunchly loyal to us even in the blackest days of Japanese occupation, and had suffered accordingly".These were the people from whom General Slim recruited his Karen Guerrillas, a volunteer force who harried, harassed and ambushed the Japanese who were opposing our own forces advancing south from Mandalay towards Rangoon.
1298 It is on these brave and remarkable people that I would like to concentrate my brief remarks today. I support wholeheartedly the concerns and general thrust of my noble friend's remarks, but I know he and my noble friend Lord Weatherill will understand if I say that we, the British, should not be ready to accept too much of the blame for what has happened to the Karen people over the past 50 years.
One of the important facts to keep in mind in considering this issue is that the Karens are not, strictly speaking, a distinct ethnic group. They are made up of a number of different tribal peoples in southern Burma. What is more important is that they are dispersed over a wide geographical area, from the Shan states east of Mandalay, southwards through the Karenni state and on to what are now the Karen states themselves and the contiguous parts of Thailand. They go westward to the Pegu Yoma mountain range and even down to the Irrawaddy delta, altogether an area of 100,000 square miles—just about the size of the United Kingdom.
This is important because the widely scattered distribution of the Karen peoples has given rise to many of the problems which they now face. In October 1947 a treaty was signed establishing the independent republic of the Union of Burma. Under the terms of this treaty there were to be separate states for the various racial groups, as both my noble friends said, including the Karens. However, in their negotiations with the Burmese in 1947, the British Government were unable, because of the wide dispersion of the Karens, to arrive at a satisfactory agreement with the Burmese over the boundaries of their proposed state. The Karens regarded both the amount of land and the degree of autonomy granted to them under the treaty as inadequate. It is for that reason that, although the Burmese Government in 1954 made a certain concession and established a new Karen state, the Karen people have, as my noble friend Lord Alton told us, been virtually in a state of civil war with the Burma Government for the past 50 years.
There is a cultural factor also which is worth bearing in mind and which has not yet been mentioned. Many Burmese have traditionally regarded the Karens as inferior beings. In fact, the word "Karen" in the Burmese language means "a wild man". It was only under British rule, especially during the war, that the Karen people were accorded the proper dignity and respect which they deserved.
I apologise for this somewhat simplified child's guide to the history of modern Burma, or Myanmar, as it is now called, but it is important to make the point that any betrayal of the Karens has not been by the British. However, that does not mean that we have no moral responsibility now to do whatever we can to help them in their present anguish. I shall not rehearse the stories of suffering, oppression and atrocity. They are well documented and further exposed by my noble friend who, as he said, recently returned from a visit to Burma and to the Karen people. I should like instead to look to the future and ask what we can do to help the people who were so courageous and so loyal to us when we needed them.
1299 One obvious idea is the establishment of some kind of international presence in the region to investigate the reports of atrocities. If even a small proportion of the anecdotal evidence of human rights violation were validated by independent observers, there would be a strong case for the strict economic sanctions to which my noble friend referred to be applied against Burma.
In that context the British Government would have a leading role to play both in the European Union and in its relations with ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations). I recall that in June last year in reply to a Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the Minister expressed the Government's concern about Burma's human rights record and said that the Government had not ruled out economic sanctions, although she reminded the House that there were certain legal complications about unilateral action in that regard. I wonder whether she will be able to tell the House, when she comes to reply to my noble friend's Motion, whether the Government's thinking on that issue has developed any further. Perhaps she can also tell the House what is the Government's reaction to the recent call from Amnesty International for member states of the European Union to raise concerns about human rights violations in Burma at the Asia-Europe meeting to be held in London next week.
I do not intend to enter into any wider discussion of the human rights situation in Burma or the unhappy fate of Aung San Suu Kyi. I have now reached the age when, to quote an American general, I have more and more vivid memories of things which never actually happened at all. However, I do have some real memories, and one of them is General Bill Slim's account of the occasion when General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, came to Slim's headquarters in the jungle to discuss placing his Burma National Army, previously under the control of the Japanese, at the disposal of the British Commander-in-Chief.
As I said earlier, my only reason for intervening in this brief debate is to support my noble friend Lord Alton in calling attention to the plight of the Karen people and in asking the Government to do everything they can to help them—not for any reason of post-colonial guilt but simply because we owe them a debt of honour, as my noble friend Lord Weatherill said, for their loyalty and courage as our allies throughout the war.
And there is a lesson for us in a remark made by General Aung San, with which I shall conclude, when he came to Bill Slim's headquarters. General Slim had promised Aung San that, whether or not they came to a satisfactory agreement about the disposal of the Burma National Army, he, Aung San, would be returned unharmed to his own people. At the beginning of their meeting in the jungle headquarters, Slim asked him why, bearing in mind his recent association with the Japanese, Aung San should now be prepared to take Slim's word that he would be treated honourably. "Because", Aung San replied simply, "you are a British officer". I believe that we must now behave towards the Karen people in a way that demonstrates that we still deserve that kind of reputation.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Alton deserves our warm congratulations on his commitment in bringing this urgent matter to our attention and I am proud to belong to this noble and mainly gallant foursome from the Cross-Benches in that regard.
I hesitate to use the term "Myanmar", just as I was reluctant to use the name "Kampuchea", which was associated with some of the worst crimes in living memory. With some comparable human rights violations going on in Myanmar, let us hope that that ancient name now used by the United Nations is not similarly tainted and will one day come into its own.
The evils of the State Peace and Development Council—a new euphemism for the junta—are now well documented. The 1997 report by the UN special rapporteur was another detailed indictment of abuses of every kind, including, as we have heard, the bombing of civilians, arbitrary killings, rape, forced relocations and the persecution of minorities such as the Karen.
The Churches and NGOs working with the refugees in Thailand confirm those atrocities. Individuals like the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and Glenys Kinnock for the European Parliament have spoken from recent experience. We have also heard it from the people themselves, especially Aung San Suu Kyi who has been a Gandhian symbol of resistance for the large majority of the Burmese since her landslide election victory in 1990.
I visited almost all the countries of South East Asia when I was on the staff of Christian Aid and Save the Children Fund, and I am still haunted by the suffering there which has gone beyond any limit of endurance we might think possible. The wartime memories of the Karen, Shan and other minorities who fought beside us against the Japanese are still vivid, as my noble friend Lord Slim will remind us, though for the Karen they are fading behind the more recent guerilla struggles against the SPDC regime and the factions it has supported.
Fortunately Thailand, despite its own economic troubles, has managed to support refugees and migrants from that region for many years, and that must be acknowledged. Yet they cannot expect sympathy when they connive with neighbouring governments and practise the refoulement of unarmed civilians back to their countries of origin. Only a few days ago there was a high-level meeting in Rangoon between the Burmese High Command and senior Thai generals, and we can assume that the junta were asking for more support in crushing pockets of Karen resistance at the expense of the civilian population.
I have clear memories of the long string of refugee camps sustained by the UNHCR and the NGOs in Thailand stretching from the hill-tribe settlements of the Hmong and the Lao in the north, down to the vast bamboo and canvas huts beside the Cardamum hills on the edge of Cambodia. Perhaps the Minister can explain why there is no similar UNHCR mandate to bring relief to the Karen refugees in the north-west, leaving only the Burma Border Consortium, the Baptist Churches and other NGOs which can obtain access to them. Cannot 1301 the UK press for that mandate? In our December debate the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth—who unfortunately is not with us today—pressed that point. It is surely possible to use the precedent of HCR's mandates which have been extended to help the displaced of Indo-China in the past.
As we have heard, the Karen were once a great nation within a nation; the oldest and largest Burmese minority. They are now in places reduced to a status closer to .jungle creatures than humans, as my noble friend Lord Weatherill said. Caught in the crossfire between Burma and Thailand they have been forced to live in whatever crevices or steep forested hillsides the army cannot penetrate.
This week I spoke to a Karen veteran of the Wingate campaign who lives in Britain and has just been back home for the first time in 50 years. He and his wife climbed up an escarpment just inside Thailand near Maesot, home to 25,000 refugees. He said that there were no paths to the camp which could only be reached along the contours of the hill. The people have nothing, he says; no means of survival or of earning their livelihood. They live on eroded slopes of bare red sand where trees have been cleared along a river which now floods up to 16 feet. The men hunt with bamboo spears and crossbows. The women and children wash without soap or clean water. Toys, towels and sweets are luxuries quite unknown to them. Cholera and malaria are taking their toll and yet, he says, no one complains.
The Karen are unaware that they are suffering from a gradual form of genocide which not only neglects its victims but isolates and targets them. Two weeks ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the neighbouring Hway Kalok camp was attacked and burned to the ground by the DKBA, a Karen Buddhist faction backed by the Burmese government. Four or five died, over 50 were wounded and many others were kidnapped, while the camp was looted and destroyed—not for the first time. There are about 115,000 "displaced people" in these so called camps in Thailand but the border seems irrelevant: they are hardly any more protected there than in the forests of Burma.
The victims of this appalling regime are not only helpless refugees but thousands inside their country who face persecution if not outright torture and forced labour. Among the prominent oppressed groups are the student population whose universities and colleges have been closed since December 1996. Students in Burma have become, not surprisingly, the most vocal opposition group and another 40 leaders were arrested three weeks ago on ridiculous charges.
We should be in no dilemma as far as our own Government's policy goes. I believe we should continue to press for economic sanctions and disinvestment on the South African model by all European Union member states and should not now enter any new contracts which sustain the present regime. We must reject the argument, often used by opponents of sanctions, that others will merely fill the breach. In the case of Texaco and the Yetagun oilfield, it looks as if our own Premier Oil will replace Texaco unless sanctions are applied. I hope the Minister can indicate the stance Her Majesty's 1302 Government will take at the Asia-Europe meeting next week which provides an excellent opportunity for us under the UK presidency. I recall, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, did, that, because of legal complications, the noble Baroness on behalf of the Government had some difficulty in taking the issue further during our last debate and I hope that she can report some further progress today.
The opposition movement in Burma is formidable and it now extends to monasteries, universities and many other institutions which are being persecuted. It would not be surprising if, as in South Africa, the people began to throw off their yoke long before the outside world applied full scale sanctions.
I do not myself advocate cutting Burma off altogether because there is a whole new generation growing up there who will expect our support in the future. Through the BBC, the British Council and the United Nations agencies we can at least maintain cultural ties, especially English language teaching, without prejudicing our political stance. I am uncomfortable with organised tourism but find it difficult to exclude all human contact. I remember from my own visit to Rangoon and Mandalay some years ago how essential the outside world is, especially to young people desperate for knowledge and understanding. I should be grateful for the Minister's assurance that we will keep up these contacts.
Evidently, my Lords, we cannot be alert to all the abuses of human rights on earth—although I think that this House does its best to follow them—but this is a country, Burma or Myanmar, and a people, the Karen, with whom we share a common past and a present moral responsibility which we cannot ignore.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Viscount Slim
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this debate and I thank the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Chalfont, for the kind things they said about my father. He would be rather pleased if he were present to see three of us who were with him here and there. The noble Lords were good officers; I think I was an unpaid lance corporal. I cannot remember whether or not I was being paid. Certainly the two noble Lords were much closer to the enemy, and for longer, than I was.
I have taken a genuine interest in the fate of Myanmar. Like everyone else who has spoken today, I get letters about Myanmar and I feel awful that there does not seem a great deal I can do to help. I am not in any way complaining about our Government who are in a very tricky position on this subject, but perhaps being as helpful as I can be towards the noble Baroness the Minister.
I am not taken in by the renaming of SLORC to the State Peace and Development Council. It has a rather sinister and more permanent ring than SLORC had. Of course, when names change, people change. I understand that three or four members of the old SLORC—generals and colonels—have been chucked out. I am told that they were possibly the cleverest. Perhaps they were too clever and they are now being 1303 fully interrogated for corruption. As happens, sadly, in Burma, when that kind of thing emerges, every mother, brother, cousin, nephew or other relation of that person and his fellow village members are badly treated and interrogated. A case is made against everyone.
The restraints placed on Daw Suu Kyi, a very courageous lady, are as repressive as ever but they have strengthened her party, though they appear publicly not to. Many in her democratic party are locked up or under restraint. All are under surveillance.
Remembering what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, we have to bear in mind that in the history of Myanmar there has always been animosity between the people of the plains, the plains men, and the hill men, the hill tribes. In fairness to Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, who I did not have the pleasure of meeting—I was in Rangoon on the day he was assassinated and heard the shooting. He assembled the leaders of all the hill tribes and asked them bluntly, although very diplomatically in the Burmese way—they are a very polite and diplomatic people when they are allowed to be—whether they would support the central government. He talked to each and every tribe: the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, the Haka Chin and those very pleasant people, the Wah, towards the north, who I have met on several occasions and who were quite good at removing enemies' heads if they felt so inclined. The tribes said that if they were given a fair amount of independence to do their own thing they would subject themselves to the central government. I think it is so stupid that that has lapsed and that the people who got rid of Aung San—probably for many reasons but I think perhaps because he was becoming a little too friendly with the hill tribes—do not have enough competence to turn over a new leaf and start again.
Of course the Burmese government—the Myanmar government—are incompetent and full of ineptitude. They are cruel and harsh. What they have done to these lovely people is awful. Though we talk about the hill tribes, which all supported us in the war in one way or another, the man on the plains is suffering just as much as the hill men. Hatred, cruelty, forced labour and hardship are everywhere today. Burma was the rice bowl of Asia. It had everything. There was never any starvation. There was plenty. They had lovely teak forests, which are now being decimated to make money for the government, but that money will not go into the people's pocket. What the Myanmar government are doing will destroy the teak forests but it will also destroy the living of the hill tribes. It is another way of ethnic cleansing.
My own son spent some time on the Bangladesh border with the one and only Moslem tribe of which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has made mention. Like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, he has seen great cruelty and suffering in various parts of the world. He said that he had never seen a tribe so badly mauled and tortured, including men, women and children. There were amputations, rapes—everything that one can think of and which to us is so horrific. The Bangladeshis, rather like the Thais, are trying now to push them back. I hate 1304 to think what has happened to them. They were just as good Burmese as any of the other tribes, whether Christian, Buddhist, Animist or whatever.
Economically the nation is about bust through completely incompetent government. Inflation is rising fast. I heard recently that the Government have closed the borders for trade, which again cannot be very sensible because the one thing that the country needs is trade. I dare say that they have done it to try to harness the legal and the illegal dealings in the US dollar. But that does not help the situation. The hotels are only about 10 per cent. Full, We are talking about an area which is in the middle of the drugs world. Some of the barons are allowed to live openly. Some people are making a great deal of money out of it, but not the sort of people we are talking about today.
But the worst thing that is happening is in education. The universities and schools were closed for two or three years, then opened for a little while and then shut again. We will have two generations of Burmese who cannot speak English. What is worse, they will be unable to speak technical English as regards medicine, engineering, commerce, and so on. I have some small interest in this. I have the privilege of being patron of a little charity, Prospect Burma, which concentrates on education. We cannot do it inside the country at the moment, but I hope that eventually we will. We operate on the Thai border with English schools in the camps which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about. It is a small effort, but we feel quite proud about the way we do it. I hope that it will get support from the noble Baroness and the Minister with whom she works.
I say this about the future: we are in a very difficult position. There is the choice of locking Burma away with sanctions and all that kind of thing. That will cause more misery and suffering. We are dealing with a very tough junta. It has survived so far and it intends to go on surviving. Do we go in and do business and humanitarian work in looking after and helping the people? Perhaps there is a mix there which should be looked at. It may be that the UN should be asked to do more.
It is a very grave situation. We cannot act alone. We have a responsibility. I respectfully remind the noble Baroness that many thousands of British. Indian, African, Chinese and Burmese soldiers died fighting to give Burma its independence. It was given that independence, but it has made a mess of it. We still have a responsibility to do all that we can. We may be able to carry that out with our European friends or the United Nations. We keep being told that we cannot act alone these days, but let us not be frightened to do so and to take action to alleviate the hardship and help these lovely people to survive and retain their democratic right, which they have already won.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, I should like to add to the congratulations that have been extended to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on bringing this matter before the House for debate. I shall go a little further and say that he also deserves great 1305 tribute for his courage in going to a deeply unstable area, spending time getting inside the refugee camps, meeting the people concerned, getting right up to the border and, in doing so, taking the kind of risk that he has taken throughout his life when he believes the cause is right.
I also pay tribute to those who have spoken in this debate, for I cannot think of a better recommendation for the Cross-Benches in this House than the short debate that we have just heard. Noble Lords with great experience of Burma have contributed to it. They know Burma's history and the events leading to its independence; they are still closely associated with the country, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, who has been there in recent years and seen precisely what they are talking about.
In those circumstances it would be wholly inappropriate for someone like myself who has no first-hand knowledge of Burma, and who has never visited the country—although I have visited its neighbours, Thailand and India—to try to add to what is being said. Therefore, in this debate I intend to concentrate on just two things. The first is why Burma is a unique case in so many ways; and, secondly, as somebody with at least a modest amount of governmental experience, what one might reasonably ask the Government to do.
Burma has certain characteristics which single it out. I do not refer to the courage of the Karen people; nor to the great contribution that they made to the Allies in the Second World War. I accept what has already been said as a huge tribute to the Karen people. There is nothing that I can properly and decently add to the marvellous tributes that we have already heard.
However, it is worth reminding the House of three characteristics of Burma. The first is that it is one of very few countries where the result of a properly conducted election, contested between political parties and by what observers agree was a proper and open method, has been so brutally overthrown in the face of the wishes of the great majority of the Burmese people.
There are many other cases where human rights have been traduced and human beings have been treated like brutes. But Burma is unusual in that it has a record of a precise election result being overturned by a junta which was absolutely conscious and aware of what it was doing. Aung San Suu Kyi, by her silent witness, for month after month and year after year—and silent only because she was not allowed to be heard—is a living statement that goes on and on of that rejection of the wishes of the Burmese people. I have had the great privilege of meeting her on more than one occasion. In paying tribute to her I believe it is right to say that she is the Gandhi or, if one likes, the Mandela of Asia. Her courage deserves our tribute.
But the best tribute to that courage is precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords have done to keep alive the remembrance of Burma, what she stands for and what is happening there. One of the great problems about Burma is that it has largely excluded the world's media. So when we say that it is a forgotten 1306 country, that is because it is not covered in our newspapers in the same way as nearby democracies and countries like Thailand and India are covered.
The second fact about Burma is that, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, it is one of the world's major conscious drug producers, by which I mean that its government knowingly allow drugs to be produced, traded and exported, and do so in the face of international disapproval of such a trade. Drugs are exported from many countries, including Colombia and Paraguay, but there are not many countries where the government openly encourage and, indeed, profit from the drugs trade as seems to be the case for the junta that governs Burma.
My third and final point about what is different about the situation in Burma as compared with other countries is that Burma has quite directly, as far as I can tell, not accepted the legality of the borders between itself and its neighbour Thailand, but openly crosses those borders, burns towns and assaults those living on the Thai side. I may not be a lawyer, but it seems to me that that is a clear breach of international law. As such, it makes Burma a country which has directly breached such law and it seems to me that that gives Her Majesty's Government a great opportunity.
I shall not recite what other noble Lords with much greater knowledge than myself have already stated. But before I proceed to the second half of my few remarks, I merely remind the House of Burke's famous dictum that for injustice to triumph it is enough for good men to remain silent. Noble Lords have not remained silent, but many others do.
When I ask, "What could the Government do?", I am not looking only to the Government for help in dealing with this problem. I refer first to the government of Thailand. Thailand is led by a prime minister, Mr. Chuan Leekpai, who is said by many to be a reasonable, decent and open-minded man. But he happens to be dealing with one of the most serious financial crises facing any country because, as we all know. Thailand is caught up in the extreme Asian financial crisis with the Baht, like the Ringgit and other east Asian currencies, literally tumbling week by week although it has pulled out a little in the last few months. In consequence, Thailand is heavily dependent on Western help—on US aid of 1.7 billion dollars and on the IMF and a loan of 18 billion dollars, and it is necessarily having to look outside to try to save itself from a still deeper financial crisis.
In such a situation, I do not think that it would be unreasonable to bring to Thailand's attention our concerns about the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has no presence in the camps along the border. It simply will not do to pretend that we have no influence on Thailand, no access to it or voice there because, clearly, we do. I repeat that the Thais deserve credit for the way in which, despite unsatisfactory conditions, they have accepted thousands of Burmese refugees. I remind noble Lords of what would happen in Britain if 116,000 illegal refugees were camped along the Kentish coast and of what we would say about that. I suspect that we would have them sent 1307 packing back to France or wherever they came from within a matter of 48 hours, so we are in no position to blame the Thais. However, we can ask them to reconsider the exclusion of the United National High Commissioner from those border camps.
We are also in a position to suggest that we could help, if it would be useful, in providing such assistance as may be needed to run the camps more effectively and to provide them with adequate sustenance. Frankly, the Thais are less and less able to do that themselves. That is all that I want to say about Thailand. As I have said, I believe that we are in a position from which we can influence Thailand. I believe that we could use that position to plead with Thailand not to remove refugees and to indicate that we would give financial help if Thailand so decided.
I turn now to Burma itself. I do not find it easy to understand why we cannot move as far as the United States in heavily discouraging direct new investment. Under a presidential order, the United States has forbidden new investment in Burma. As we know, that has driven some American companies to sell their companies, alas, to Europeans, including ourselves. I believe that we become, in a sense, accomplices to the guilt that is borne for Burma's behaviour if we do not take any steps to support the United States. To the limited extent of at least publicly discouraging new investment in Burma, I think that we should take that step and then turn to our European neighbours and ask them to help us. Let me be quite blunt: it is our responsibility, for all the reasons which noble Lords have given, first and foremost not to say to the EU, "You take the steps and we will follow" because we should take the steps and then ask our EU neighbours to follow.
One other action could be taken—not by the Government, but by the charitable bodies, non-governmental organisations and others with which many noble Lords are associated. I refer among others to Christian Aid and Amnesty International. I warmly recommend that those bodies circulate the shareholders of companies such as Premier Oil, and others which are currently seeking to become involved in Burma, information about the circumstances into which those companies will be moving. Such bodies should say that shareholders should not allow their companies to take such action. The power of shareholders is almost totally unorganised. However, it can be organised and extremely effectively, as we have seen with certain Green movements. I commend that suggestion to the House.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on securing this debate and on raising the profile of this important issue, and to say how much I should like to associate myself with so many of the comments made so admirably from the Cross Benches and also by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby.
1308 We have heard details this evening of the gruelling fact-finding mission of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the Thai-Burma border. He has provided the House with a compelling account of the gravity of the situation there. We have heard disturbing reports and horrific descriptions of the persecution suffered by the Karen people. They are an ethnic minority group, but with an estimated population of 7 million, they are the second largest ethnic group in Burma. As we have heard, they have been engaged in conflict with the Burmese Army for many decades in their struggle for an independent state. Placatory promises to establish an independent territory have been made and forgotten. Many this evening have argued that we owe a debt to the Karen and that we cannot afford to ignore their current plight. That is a sentiment with which I seek strongly to be associated.
As we have already heard, attacks by the Burmese Army against the Karen are characterised by forced relocations, forced labour, rape, pillage and death. Many have fled towards Thailand in a quest for freedom, but the Burmese Army has pursued them over the border. As recently as 11th March this year, the Wangka refugee camp in Thailand was destroyed by fire at the hands of the Burmese Army, leaving many of the Karen destitute and starving. Sadly, that is no isolated incident. As we have heard this evening, the Burmese Army, condoned by the Burmese Government, continues to treat the Karen with contempt. Those who are not able to flee from them in the jungle are either forced into slavery or shot.
It is evident to us that the current situation is intolerable, and yet what can we do to alleviate such suffering?
As the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, rightly pointed out, the Burmese regime was formerly known as the State Law and Order Council. To the wry amusement of the watching world last November it renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It hears nothing but contempt for the international community. It revels in its status as a pariah of the late 20th century. It ignores the opprobrium, condemnation and censure that is heaped upon it by the rest of the world. This is a government that rules by the law of terror. Democracy, political pluralism and opposition have no place here. Those who are brave enough to stand up for their beliefs risk arrest, detention, torture and murder in the fight to suppress opposition.
Burma continues to turn a blind eye to the drugs trade. These very important issues were raised by both the Cross Benches and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. The reality is that opium and heroin production benefit many who are associated through that government with the trade therein. The SPDC persecutes religious groups. Forced conversion from Christianity to Buddhism is commonplace and crosses are symbolically burned. The UN Special Rapporteur for Burma, Chief Justice Rajsoomer Lallah, who has been repeatedly denied access to the country, has chronicled a history of truly appalling violations, including summary executions, the inhumane treatment of political detainees, particularly in the notorious Insein prison outside Rangoon, and forced civilian labour. 1309 This is a government by the government for the government. Hope is starved and desperation fed while corruption and nepotism prosper.
How can we tackle the problems of the Karen against such an intractable authority? These are difficult questions and require an answer from the House this evening. Many possible solutions and useful ideas have been put forward. I believe that there are a number of tools at our disposal. First, I grapple with the thorny issue of sanctions on which we have heard different views during this extremely useful debate. The Opposition support the Government in taking action bilaterally and with our partners in the United Nations and the European Union to put pressure on the Burmese regime to implement democratic reform and full respect for human rights. I respect their decision to continue the suspension of non-humanitarian aid as well as the 1991 arms embargo and all other defence links which were severed in 1992. I support the Government's position to date which has been to encourage a policy of full dialogue and constructive engagement as opposed to the imposition of trade sanctions. Perhaps the Government are inclined to adhere to the United States concept of consistent principles and flexible tactics, so eloquently put forward by Madeleine Albright in April of last year, which allows the US to impose sanctions on Burma but at the same time confers MEN status on China.
Let us consider the efficacy of the Government's stated policy. Does the Minister accept that even if the Government adopted a more aggressive approach it is unlikely to have the desired effect in Burma as it would isolate the perpetrators and drive them even further away from reform, particularly in a country where the government shows scant respect for the international community? We believe that the United Kingdom should instead achieve an appropriate, albeit very difficult, and principled balance of policies able to reflect the inherent tensions between the protection of human rights, national trade interests and assistance in a country's economic development, placing specific and most important emphasis on the protection of human rights.
Examining these issues more closely, it is worth noting that last July Burma joined the Association of South East Asian Nations. It is to be hoped that the other members of ASEAN will succeed in exerting pressure on Burma to bring forward political and human rights reforms, even if Burma is not yet at that table. I believe that Britain may also have a role to play in that process. Next week, at the invitation of the former Prime Minister, Britain plays host to the second ASEM, or Asia-Europe Conference. Although that conference will focus upon trade and investment, can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will use that as an important opportunity formally to stress their concerns about the plight of the Karen? The Minister has advocated that wherever possible the Government will raise their human rights concerns as part of a constructive bilateral relationship. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that that will be the case at the conference?
1310 I turn briefly to the role of the United Nations. Undoubtedly, there is a pressing need for a permanent presence by UN human rights monitors in eastern Burma and on the border of Thailand. Moreover, while the Thai Government continue to refuse to recognise the people in their camps as refugees the UNHCR cannot send in its staff without permission from the Thai authorities. As the 54th UN Commission on Human Rights is currently in mid-session, can the Government outline to the House in some detail what representations they intend to make to press for action on this issue?
There is one person so critically involved in the politics of Burma to whom I have yet to pay tribute. She is of course Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy. When we consider the options at our disposal to encourage reform in Burma I believe that we should ask ourselves what she would want us to do. Would high ideals flawed by false rhetoric be enough to satisfy her? I do not believe so. A more sophisticated attitude to this issue will eventually succeed. We all want to see the day when autocracy and internal strife are replaced with democracy and the rule of law, when the energies of the government of Burma are turned towards fighting the battle against poverty, corruption and despair, rather than against domestic rivals and the persecution of ethnic minorities and when Burma becomes an engine of growth and a full participant in the global economy.
To achieve that, the Opposition support the Government in deploring the human rights atrocities in Burma. We hope that the Government will demonstrate a clear policy of carefully considered action that balances the carrots of constructive dialogue with the sticks of economic sanctions and take the two very important opportunities at both the UNHCR Conference now in mid-session and next week in ASEM to register many of the concerns that have been expressed throughout the House this evening.
Finally, the Opposition believe that through their presidency of the European Union the Government have a real opportunity to influence the world by drawing attention to the plight of the Karen. The Government must rise to this occasion. I am confident that with the unanimity that has been expressed on so many issues this evening by noble Lords in this House they will do so.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for this opportunity to give further consideration to the situation in Burma, on which your Lordships had very valuable exchanges last December. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the personal interest he has taken in the plight of Burmese refugees and the considerable courage that he has shown in pursuing his objectives.
I have listened carefully to the concerns expressed today. I share the sense of outrage at the extent of human rights abuses in Burma. The Burmese regime's brutal policies towards ethnic minorities have led 1311 directly to the exodus of civilians across Burma's borders into neighbouring countries. The largest number of refugees is concentrated along the border between Burma and Thailand. It is this group to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has drawn attention so graphically.
We continue to exert pressure on the Burmese regime to abandon its repressive policies and to implement democratic reform. We recognise that the plight of the Burmese refugees is only one symptom of a wider problem. I shall address that issue later. I should first explain our actions to help the refugees.
Our strategy for tackling Karen and other refugee problems is regional. We are working to alleviate the suffering of refugees both within Burma's borders and from neighbouring countries. We try to do so in at least four ways: first, by providing direct UK humanitarian assistance; secondly, by working closely with neighbouring countries on repatriation issues; thirdly, by working to ensure adequate security for refugees; and, fourthly, by ensuring that the representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are able to do their job properly. I shall look at each of those in turn.
At a national level, our humanitarian assistance delivers vital relief. Since 1992 we have provided £630,000 in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries. In 1997–98 alone, we contributed £267,000 to support the excellent work of the Burma Border Consortium in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees in camps in Thailand. We have also supported work in repatriating and resettling Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Burma. We are considering further proposals from non-governmental organisations at present and stand ready to look at ideas which others may have.
On repatriation, the large number of refugees in Thailand places a considerable burden on that country. Domestic economic difficulties are, as we have heard, forcing the Thai authorities to implement more strictly its regulations on illegal economic migrants, including some Burmese people. But our ambassador at Bangkok has received assurances from the commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army and the head of the National Security Council that there will be no forced repatriations of refugees. The Government will continue to pay close attention to that sensitive issue.
On security, it is essential that refugee populations should enjoy adequate security. The Government were particularly appalled by recent attacks, described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on Wangka and Mawker refugee camps in Thailand by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association. Following the attack on Wangka camp, our embassy in Bangkok immediately contacted the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and non-governmental organisations in the area to clarify what had happened. The following day, as EU presidency, we released a statement deploring the attack and calling on the Burmese regime to investigate and to prevent further attacks. Of course Her Majesty's Government deplore those attacks.
1312 The Thai army deployed extra troops to that area following the first incursion. That has enabled quicker and more effective responses to the second incident. Clearly there are still problems. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, among a number of questions, asked what Her Majesty's Government can do directly. The British Ambassador in Bangkok called on the Thai Interior Minister yesterday and discussed the refugee situation. Embassy officials have also discussed the refugee situation today with the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked about access to the UN human rights commissioners. Officials in the British Embassy in Bangkok visited the Wangka and Mylai camps on 20th March with representatives from the UNHCR, the Thai National Security Council and US and Australian embassies. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that we are making some, albeit limited, progress in those areas.
While I welcome the important role which the Thai authorities play in providing shelter for refugees, we have also urged them to ensure that the camps receive adequate protection. The British Embassy in Bangkok regularly visits the camps to monitor the situation. Our embassy in Rangoon also reports regularly. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for finding time during his visit to the area to call at our embassy in Bangkok for discussions and encouragement on these important issues.
I turn now to the UNHCR. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has a key role to play in difficult situations such as this. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked what progress could be made on those points. I pressed the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister specifically on this issue when I saw him last month. He assured me that the Prime Minister of Thailand has decided to allow United Nations High Commission for Refugees representatives more systematic access to the area; final details are now being worked out. I hope noble Lords will feel that some progress has been made in that important area.
The Government will continue to pursue appropriate policies and initiatives aimed at relieving the suffering of Karen and other Burmese refugees, but a durable solution to the problem can only be achieved by political reform in Burma. So let me now turn to the second part of the Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which concerns the Burmese military regime itself.
The political and human rights situation in Burma remains wholly unacceptable. The international community called on the State Peace and Development Council to distinguish itself from the State Law and Order Restoration Council with policy action. There has been none. The State Peace and Development Council says that there will be none. I can only agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that the government in Burma may have changed their name but sadly they have not changed their nature.
When the SLORC was dissolved on 15th November the Rashim remained unelected and unaccountable. The noble Viscount was right: some former, corrupt 1313 Ministers were rooted out, but the top four members of the SLORC remain firmly in control of the SPDC. There has been no indication that they will reform or abandon their repressive policies.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the pro-democracy supporters. At least 21 pro-democracy supporters were arrested in January. Four have been sentenced to between two and four years' imprisonment. There are widespread reports of the harassment of students and monks, as noble Lords have pointed out this evening. In February, 40 members of the All-Burma Students Democratic Association were arrested in conjunction with an alleged terrorist plot to undermine the regime.
The Government have left the Burmese regime in no doubt that its behaviour must improve, for the good of its own peoples. To facilitate national reconciliation we have also repeatedly called on the Burmese authorities to engage in a substantive dialogue with opposition political leaders, particularly with that brave lady Aung San Suu Kyi and with other ethnic minorities. Despite some very limited overtures last year, I am sorry to say that there has still been no serious attempt at political dialogue with pro-democracy groups.
I turn now to specific UK action. We work closely with our partners around the globe to promote a simple message on Burma: the peoples of Burma have expressed democratically their wish for a fairer deal; their voice must be heard by their government.
At the EU level, we are exerting direct pressure on the regime through a package of punitive measures contained in the EU common position on Burma. These include an arms embargo; a ban on visas to members of the regime; the suspension of defence links and non-humanitarian aid; and a ban on high-level official visits. Later this month we anticipate that the EU General Affairs Council will renew this package for a further six months. On a national basis, we have gone further and suspended government financial support to UK companies for trade missions or trade promotion in Burma.
We are also using our EU presidency to launch a "Positive Measures" initiative. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked what we would be doing during the presidency. This initiative aims to provide targeted assistance to strengthen civil society and humanitarian relief to disadvantaged communities. This British initiative has been warmly welcomed by our European partners and by the European Commission. We are working with them and with non-governmental organisations to develop a package of projects.
The discussions in the UN General Assembly last autumn resulted in the adoption, by consensus, of a tough resolution on human rights in Burma. We offered detailed contributions during the drafting process and we co-sponsored the final text, which was stronger than last year's resolution in key areas. As EU presidency, we are introducing a resolution on Burma at the UN Commission on Human Rights which opened on 16th March. In negotiating our text, we shall he working hard to ensure that it draws particular attention to the plight of ethnic minorities and the lack of progress on human rights.
1314 It is the responsibility of the Burmese Government to respect their obligations and to implement UN resolutions swiftly and in full. We shall maintain pressure on them to do so.
A number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about Britain's investment in Burma. We believe that the statistics are somewhat misleading because they include substantial investments from non-UK companies registered in British dependent territories such as the British Virgin Islands. The estimate shows that UK exports to Burma in 1997 were nearly 30 per cent. lower than in 1996. We are aware of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about the recent investment of Premier Oil in the Yetagun natural gas pipeline project in Burma. The FCO Minister of State, Mr. Fatchett, made Charles Jamieson, the chief executive of Premier Oil, aware of our policy when they met on 17th December.
We have taken early action to clarify UK policy on trading promotion. On 19th June we announced that we would not provide financial support for companies for trade missions. We have been encouraging our European partners to follow our lead. Indeed, some already have done so, notably Denmark and Norway. We do not encourage UK companies to trade with or invest in Burma. Officials in the UK and at our embassy in Rangoon continue to provide routine advice on doing business in Burma, but that advice makes clear the present realities in Burma, including the political and human rights situation and the state of the Burmese economy. We also draw the attention of businessmen to the statements made by Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy leaders which discourage trade and investment in Burma.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, asked specifically about economic sanctions and whether we had gone further with them. We are still considering the full range of measures at our disposal. But, as I told your Lordships' House on a previous occasion, it is legally difficult for the United Kingdom or the European Union to implement full economic sanctions or an investment ban without the cover of a United Nations Security Council Resolution.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of ASEAN. ASEAN decided to admit Burma as a full member in July last year. That was a matter for it, but for our part we asked ASEAN to put pressure on the Burmese regime for reform. We have been encouraged that Foreign Ministers from, for example, the Philippines and Malaysia have called on Aung San Suu Kyi and on other leaders during their recent visits to Burma.
Noble Lords asked specifically about the meeting of ASEM II. There is no fixed agenda for the political dialogue session which will take place in London at the end of next week. The heads of state will decide on the issues to be discussed at that time, but I can say that in the view of Her Majesty's Government it would be natural for Burma and the issues we have discussed tonight to be discussed then.
I must make one or two comments in respect of what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, about young people in 1315 education. The British Council is very active in Burma, focusing particularly on providing English tuition to ordinary Burmese people. The British Embassy in Rangoon has also operated a scholarship scheme to allow Burmese people to come to the United Kingdom for education. We believe that our new positive measures in that initiative, which I described to your Lordships earlier, will be aimed at helping more ordinary Burmese people to take advantage of such opportunities.
I believe that the Government are at one with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and with all noble Lords who have spoken tonight, in his concern at the plight of the Karen and other ethnic minority refugees and particularly the horror expressed at the continued violation of human rights by the Burmese military regime. This is, above all, a man-made problem, but it has the possibility of man-made solutions.
The Burmese regime has a duty to its people to implement democratic reform rapidly. This issue remains a key concern for Her Majesty's Government. To the peoples of Burma we send a clear message: we are working with you and for you towards the same goal—an end to human rights abuses and the rapid implementation of democratic reform.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. There has been remarkable unanimity from all sides of your Lordships' House tonight. We have heard speeches which have been characterised by personal experience and by a wealth of knowledge. Distinguished and substantial speeches have been made which, when they are read in the Official Report of your Lordships' House by Karen and Burmese people, will be seen as a contribution towards forwarding the progress towards democracy to which the Minister alluded.
My noble friend Lord Sandwich spoke of genocide. I do not believe that that is an exaggeration. A life in South-East Asia is worth no less than a life in south-east Europe. Our response, quite properly, to the atrocities of the Bosnian warlords was to establish an international war crimes tribunal. I believe that it is high time that such a tribunal was established to try those responsible for the atrocities about which your Lordships have heard tonight.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, spoke of the exclusion of the world's media. I join her in hoping that the media will respond to tonight's debate by trying to go into Burma, to visit the refugee camps and to report faithfully on what is happening there.
The Minister dealt with the issue of sanctions. On 1st September, Mr. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said that the largest single world producer of opium is Burma and that it does not act against the drugs barons. He described it as:a deeply repressive regime as well as a deeply irresponsible regime".It is clear that we must take fast and more stringent action than has been the case hitherto. I was pleased in particular to hear mention made of the investment of 1316 companies such as Premier Oil, which is involved in a 70 million dollar investment in the Yetagun project, and of Total from France.
The purpose of the debate, as my noble friend Lord Weatherill said, is to use the freedoms which we enjoy, especially the privilege of free speech, to highlight the sufferings and aspirations of people who share none of those same rights. By raising our voices here tonight, it will give fresh encouragement to the oppressed people of Burma and especially to our erstwhile allies, the Karen. Perhaps it will also help to persuade British companies and those who invest in them not to allow a single penny to be spent which aids or abets a regime which systematically abuses human rights and kills its own people.
The Minister reiterated the Government's concerns about the policies of the Burmese regime. The daily loss of life and the terrible tragedies just waiting to happen demand an urgency and commitment which I know the Minister and the Government will bring. That she eloquently expressed tonight in her sense of outrage about what is happening in Burma today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.