HL Deb 11 December 2003 vol 655 cc866-8

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Cox

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards the current situation in Burma (Myanmar) with regard to the State Peace and Development Council's policy towards opposition and ethnic national groups.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, United Kingdom policy is to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese military regime to enter into genuine and substantive dialogue with opposition and ethnic groups, leading to democracy, national reconciliation and respect for human rights in Burma. We work closely with our international partners, including Burma's regional neighbours, to press the regime on these issues. United Kingdom pressure will be maintained until Burma is irreversibly committed to substantive, lasting political change.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. It will undoubtedly give great encouragement to countless people who are suffering at the hands of the brutal State Peace and Development Council regime. Is the Minister aware that I have recently returned from a visit, during which I obtained evidence of continuing and systematic violations of human rights by that regime, forcing hundreds of thousands of ethnic nationals, such as the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin and the Shan, to live as displaced people? Many are suffering and dying from hunger and disease, often with no access to healthcare. For example, I met a young mother whose three children had just died from malaria. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore please increase pressure on the SPDC regime to open all of Burma to humanitarian aid and human rights organisations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for suggesting that Her Majesty's Government's policy gives encouragement to those that are suffering under the vicious regime in Burma. I thank her wholeheartedly for the superb work she undertakes there. She keeps the issue at the top of our mind in this House and does what she can to help the people of Burma, including the Karen, the Karenni and others.

The United Kingdom will continue to bring whatever pressure we can. We are the largest EU donor to Burma, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware. We provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced people referred to by the noble Baroness and we fund the Burmese Border Consortium, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the UN High Commission for Refugees through what we are doing with our colleagues in the EU and bilaterally.

We shall continue to do this, but already we have concerns about any direct aid because it is not clear that such aid would be dispersed in the way in which we would wish to see it dispersed in Burma. Perhaps the noble Baroness and I can speak further about the difficulties that we have in that respect.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I fully endorse the tribute paid by my noble friend to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Has it been explained to the SPDC that its proposal for a convention as a first step towards an inclusive democracy is not likely to achieve its objective when its principal opponents are excluded from the convention? The position is not improved by its insistence that the president should have military experience-a proposal clearly intended to ensure control by the army.

I fully accept the Government's work on the problem, but is there a possibility of a common EU position, bearing in mind the persuasive effects of a discriminatory investment policy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the military regime has put together something it describes as a "road map". It is a small but completely inadequate step. It has no time lines; it is unclear who will be allowed to join the national convention process; and as long as Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest she will be unable to represent the National League for Democracy, as will others who are barred from doing so.

My noble and learned friend raised, in particular, the issue surrounding the EU. He will know that, together with EU partners, we continue to prefer selective measures targeted at the regime rather than the kind of measures introduced by the United States of America, which we believe harm many of the poorer people. However, we should like to consider ways in which we can harden up the common position, which comes up for renewal in April 2004.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while echoing the thanks that have been expressed already to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I should like to add my thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the robust and clear stand it has always taken on these issues. Is there not one area in which interaction with the Burmese regime is possible-that is, the ILO? Can the Minister comment on the report recently made to the governing council of the ILO in Geneva? It is a very negative report, which includes an observation by the liaison officer that forced recruitment into the armed forces is continuing, including that of children. Can any additional work be done via the ILO to ensure that that obnoxious practice ceases-and indeed the practice of forced labour, which affects the minorities mentioned by the noble Baroness?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The ILO and the whole question of forced labour is another pressure point on the Burmese regime. We fully support the ILO and call upon the Burmese authorities to end permanently the nasty practice of forced labour. Burma's general system of preferences was suspended by the European Union in 1997 in response to the concerns about forced labour.

I agree with the noble Lord about the use of child soldiers. These are but two of the disgraceful practices of the current regime in Burma. It is of course possible to exert pressure, not only bilaterally but through the international multilateral forums available to us.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what steps have been taken to raise this issue at the UN Security Council? In doing so, would we expect to be able to suggest rather strongly to China, as a member of the Security Council, that it could have a part to play in bringing about a more honourable regime in Burma?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, this issue has been addressed in the United Nations through the General Assembly, rather than through the Security Council. The noble Baroness may know that the General Assembly mandated the UN Secretary-General to continue to provide his good offices and to pursue his discussions on the issue of human rights and restoration of democracy with the Government and people of Burma, including all relevant parties to the national reconciliation process.

The noble Baroness raised the question of the Security Council. As she will understand, the problem is that it has not been easy to get support from some of the Asian countries in finding sponsors. Sadly, only one Asian country would co-sponsor the motion at the General Assembly.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, are the Government taking any steps to endorse the initiative by the ethnic minorities' Committee for Democracy that has been set up? These people are trying to rebuild democracy in Burma. Have the Government done anything specific to assist the committee?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we welcome the ethnic road map as opposed to the military regime's road map-two initiatives are going on side by side. We are supportive of all efforts to encourage the Burmese military regime to enter into the substantive and genuine dialogue that I mentioned in my initial answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. It is difficult to give direct support when we have so little means of entry into Burma itself.

The Burmese Government have called a meeting on the issue in Bangkok in January, which they have described as a meeting of like-minded countries-although I am not sure whether countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan and France would like to be considered like-minded with the Burmese. Unfortunately, those countries will discuss the Burmese regime road map rather than the ethnic road map. However, I hope that they will take the opportunity to make their views about how things are operating very clear. The United Kingdom has not been invited.