§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Baroness Coxrose to ask Her Majesty's Government what their response is to recent developments in Burma (Myanmar).
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who are participating in this debate. The evidence of such widespread concern will be a great comfort to the people of Burma, suffering for so long at the hands of a brutal regime, many of whom feel forgotten by the international community. I should say that I was struck last night by a virulent virus. If I should have to leave the Chamber temporarily, I hope that your Lordships will understand.
The military junta, with its Orwellian name, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has recently incurred criticism for its re-arrest of the valiant Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the peaceful democratic party, the National League for Democracy, which won over 80 per cent of the seats in the 1990 election. On 12th June, the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, took a virtually unprecedented step, writing a devastating critique in the Washington Post of the SPDC's attack on Aung San Suu Kyi. Entitled,
It's Time to Turn the Tables on Burma's Thugs",
§ it outlines measures which should be taken against the SPDC, such as freezing its financial assets, banning remittances to Burma so that the regime cannot benefit from the foreign exchange, and placing restrictions on travel-related transactions that benefit the SPDC and its supporters. Will Her Majesty's Government be supporting similar measures against the SPDC?
§ While the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi is deplorable and worthy of the strongest possible reaction, her voice has still been heard, even during long years of house arrest; and there are many influential voices who speak on her behalf.
§ But less often heard are the voices of the ethnic minorities—Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Arakan and others. Hundreds of thousands are suffering and dying from brutal policies, including military attacks on civilian villages, the destruction of homes and crops, forced labour in conditions so harsh that many perish, systematic rape, use as human minesweepers, forced relocations, denial of access to food or medical supplies and the displacement of over a million people.
§ I have had the privilege of visiting some of these people inside Burma and those who have had to flee to camps in Thailand in order to survive. It is their voices which I wish to be heard tonight and their suffering I wish to highlight, because their predicament is desperate and many more will die if the SPDC is allowed to continue its brutal policies.
§ Since 1996, the Burma army has destroyed at least 2,350 villages. There are over 110,000 refugees in Thailand, at least 1 million internally displaced people in eastern Burma, and perhaps 2 million in the whole country. Some are held in 176 SPDC-controlled relocation—or "concentration"—camps, but hundreds of thousands are hiding in the jungle, with little access to food, medicine or shelter and at great risk of attack from the SPDC.
§ The SPDC also uses child soldiers. The recent Human Rights Watch report, My Gun Was As Tall As Me, concludes that Burma has more child soldiers than any other country in the world. Of about 350,000 troops, as many as 70,000—20 per cent—are children. The findings of Christian Solidarity Worldwide corroborate this report. I have spoken with some of these child soldiers, who escaped at great risk. Their stories are deeply disturbing. One former Burmese boy soldier said that out of 1,750 new soldiers in a training camp, 1,000 were children; another boy said that out of 250 new recruits, he saw 100 children; a third boy said that in his unit of 30 soldiers, 15 were children.
§ Almost all the former child soldiers interviewed had been picked off the street, from bus stops or on their way home from school, by Burmese soldiers. Their parents do not know what has happened to them and the conditions in which they are kept are brutal. Beatings are common. One young boy, Nay, was beaten several times, once so badly that he could not walk for a week. Another young boy said that he had been beaten on one occasion by nine men because he had been late for a line-up. If they are lucky, they 213 manage to escape, though at great risk. Nay said he escaped because, "I could not bear the torture any more".
Then there is the policy of so-called "Burmanisation" or "cultural genocide". One Chin leader told us that the Chin language has been removed from the school curriculum. It is illegal to publish a Chin language Bible—although the Chin are 90 per cent Christian—and even Burmese language Bibles cannot be freely circulated in Chin state. A Chin leader said:
Religious persecution happens on a daily basis".
§ In every major Chin town or village it was usual practice for the Chin to erect a Christian cross. But the SPDC has destroyed most of these crosses and replaced them with statues of Buddha. Fertile land farmed by the Chin has often been taken and given to Burmans from central Burma. "It is a systematic campaign by the SPDC", the Chin leader explained. "When people lose their culture and traditions, they lose what they are campaigning for".
Reports have emerged from Karenni state that Burma army soldiers are offered incentives to marry Karenni Christian women. In Shan and Karen areas, according to Burma Issues, there is,
a military policy which stipulates an order by which Burmese soldiers are told to marry ethnic women—the obvious intention being that if killing and guns can't get rid of them then breeding them out will. Not only will it physically dilute the ethnic races into oblivion but it would also succeed in eradicating the culture and identity of the ethnic groups".
§ The United States report on religious freedom in 2002 ranked Burma among the six worst countries. Christians among the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni are particularly targeted, and churches are often destroyed or turned into Buddhist temples. Buddhists suffer too. The mainly Buddhist Shan, the Buddhists among the Karen and Karenni, and the majority Buddhist Burmans are oppressed and persecuted. The Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan state are suffering as much as those on Burma's eastern borders. According to Refugees International, Burma's citizenship law denies the Muslim Rohingyas citizenship. Confiscation of Rohingya land is commonplace, and the Rohingya are prohibited from leaving their villages to access markets, employment, education and medical care.
§ May I therefore ask the Minister four questions? First, what measures have Her Majesty's Government taken, or do they intend to take, to increase pressure on the SPDC to end its persecution of the ethnic minorities and to enter into dialogue with them and with the National League for Democracy? The ethnic minorities and the NLD have repeatedly emphasised their desire for peaceful dialogue.
§ Secondly, in some of our discussions with ethnic minority leaders, they have expressed an interest in holding such a dialogue in a third country, with the hosts acting as mediators. Thailand has been mentioned as a country which might be able to provide valuable assistance in this way. Might Her Majesty's Government consider encouraging such an initiative if it is felt to be appropriate by all parties involved?214
§ Thirdly, will Her Majesty's Government try to encourage the international community to speak with a more united voice? The European Union and the USA have introduced some economic sanctions and political pressure, but the effect of such pressure is limited so long as the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with China, Japan, Australia and India, continue their own policy of "constructive engagement" and "non-interference". Will Her Majesty's Government try to encourage those governments to use their influence to bring pressure to bear on the SPDC?
§ Finally, what are the Government's priorities for international development with regard to Burma? Can the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's Government have recently provided 281,600 dollars for environmental projects in Burma, including 192,000 dollars for a bat conservation project in Karen state? If that is the case, what is the explanation for this policy when there are over a million IDPs bereft of food, medicines or shelter? Do the Government intend to provide any direct cross-border assistance to the over a million IDPs inside Burma?
Burma is ruled by a regime which has wrecked the country's economy and rules by fear. Yet the people know that foreign investment will not help them. Mahn Sha, general secretary of the Karen National Union, emphasises that the SPDC uses the money from foreign investors,
to buy fighters, tanks, artillery, and with these weapons they kill, rape and destroy Karen people, they take people for forced labour and forced relocation, they oppress our people—and all the people of Burma—in many ways".
§ Sanctions may create more economic hardship, but the ethnic minorities and the pro-democracy groups believe that they will suffer anyway—and that sanctions at least stand a chance of cutting off the regime's support and forcing it to the negotiating table.
§ Peoples such as the Karen and Karenni valiantly supported the British in the past. Many speak with affection but are now expressing sad disillusion. "The British betrayed our trust", said an elderly Karen man who had served with the Allies in Burma in the Second World War. When asked why the Karen had been so loyal to the British, his response was simple: "Because we were foolish".
§ I hope that the Minister's answers tonight will give hope to the Karen and others who served our country so loyally and so bravely at our time of need, so that we will not be seen to be betraying them in their hour of greatest need.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Lord Faulkner of Worcester
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on initiating this debate and on the eloquent and moving speech she made. The noble Baroness has given us a flavour of the sort of country that Burma has become. Here is an extract from the newsletter of the Alternative ASEAN network on Burma, dated 11th June. It concerns what happened on 30th May: 215Black Friday, May 30, and the ensuing crackdown has been the most ruthless and bloodiest attack on the democracy movement in Burma since the 1988 massacre. Five hundred to 1,000 USD A members, police, men dressed as monks, armed soldiers and prisoners ambushed hundreds of unarmed NLD supporters, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD team with lethal weapons: guns, sharpened bamboo stakes, catapults, and iron and steel pipes. Hundreds have been arrested, killed and are missing. Reportedly 65 bodies were secretly cremated in the Northwest Military Command compound. Scores of people are missing".A similar and even more graphic account is given by Mr John Jackson, director of The Burma Campaign UK, who has written to a number of Members of this House. Your Lordships may remember that I asked a topical question about the arrest and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi in this House last Wednesday. I was pleased to receive a robust and helpful reply from my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean.
However, one of the strongest points that Mr Jackson makes in the letter which I received from him yesterday is that the "brutal general"—his words—who rules Burma, Than Shwe, is not a man who worries about strong diplomatic language. However, he is a man who worries about economic sanctions. Mr Jackson says:His regime earns most of its income from foreign investment and a few key exports, such as oil, gas and gems. Income from these sectors has helped the regime double the size of the army to half a million soldiers".So the ideal would be the introduction of world-wide economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council of the United Nations. If that cannot quickly be achieved, an investment ban should be imposed by the European Union. At the very least, the United Kingdom should implement such a ban.
The involvement of British companies in propping up the Burmese regime is particularly deplorable. One of those is British American Tobacco whose deputy chairman, Kenneth Clarke, MP, in a private letter, described the junta as "an extremely unpleasant regime". This regime is a 40 per cent shareholder in BAT's Burma subsidiary, Rothmans of Pall Mall Myanmar. So far, BAT has shown no willingness to follow other British companies such as Premier Oil in selling its investment in Burma.
Another company which appears to care nothing about human rights in the country where it is making money is Orient-Express, the luxury train and ship operator. The brochure which I read on its website this morning almost parodies itself. Here are some examples:Few places on earth remain untouched in their natural beauty and charm from one century to the next. The ancient land of Burma, now known as Myanmar, is however an exception to the rule, and we bring you the best of this fascinating, unspoilt country. The people of Myanmar love to celebrate and throughout the year find endless reasons for frivolity and festivities.Myanmar was once one of Asia's most inaccessible countries. Having turned its back on the world, Myanmar escaped the excesses of commercialisation. As a result, the country has retained an enviable way of life from which we can all learn".That way of life from which we can all learn presumably includes introducing forced labour for millions of men, women and children, the use of rape 216 as a weapon of war against ethnic women and children, the death of one in 10 babies before their first birthday, becoming one of the largest illegal producers of illegal opium and heroin, denying an elected party its right to govern and imprisoning its internationally revered leader, and reducing one of the richest countries in Asia to one of the poorest in the world. There is quite a lot to learn from there, my Lords.
I assume that before British people sign up for these very expensive holidays in Burma, they check with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whether it is a good idea to go there. I regret that if they rely on the country advice on the FCO website they will not receive much help. The summary does mention Black Friday and it says that,the situation is uncertain and tense".But the opening words are:The majority of visits to Burma are trouble free".Nowhere on the website is there a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi's plea to westeners not to visit as tourists, to her recent arrest and detention, or to her role as the legitimate elected leader of the Burmese people. Indeed, she is not mentioned at all.
The FCO website is less helpful and explicit than it was when this House debated Burma in October 2000. At that time it contained a link to the letter which the late Derek Fatchett wrote to the chairman of the Association of British Travel Agents drawing ABTA members' attention to the request of pro-democracy leaders for Britons to boycott Burma as a tourist destination. It would be a small but significant step if, when my noble friend replies, she could indicate that a suitable "Don't visit Burma on human rights grounds" message could be restored to the FCO's country advice website.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, in endorsing every single word that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, has just expressed, perhaps I may also associate myself with what the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said in initiating tonight's timely debate. Her own personal example and her courage and bravery in raising this issue again and again in your Lordships' House is an inspiration to us all.
The Burmese military's decision to re-arrest Aung San Suu Kyi has thrown back into sharp relief the policies of the Burmese military junta. It is every bit as brutal towards its own citizens as the regime that terrorised Iraq, and the world needs to be much clearer about how it will deal with the systematic atrocities and the depredations in Burma. I particularly welcome the very strong statement by the American Administration last week and the statements coming out of the American Congress, which I hope we shall take the opportunity tonight to endorse.
To date, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, relatively little interest has been shown in the genocide perpetrated by the Burmese military and which western governments, as we heard as recently as Question Time in your Lordships' House again last Wednesday, have been very reluctant to name as such.
217 In the spring, I travelled again to the Burma border under the auspices of the Jubilee campaign. I was accompanied by Congressman Joseph Pitts. We saw there some of the victims of the terrible atrocities that have been referred to this evening. They include relatives of those who have faced summary executions, rape, forced relocations, destruction of villages, destruction of food stores and crops, and the use of forced labour.
More than 650,000 Karen, Karenni and Shan have been internally displaced. More than 200,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Thailand. Many displaced people are hiding in the jungle with little or no food or medicine, and they are usually shot on sight by Burmese troops. I can think of no other country where so many displaced people are being subjected to a shoot-on-sight policy, yet Her Majesty's Government and the international community continue to pay relatively little attention to the desperate plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan.
Perhaps I may relate the story of one small child whom I met at a refugee camp near Mae Sot. It illustrates how the brutality and violence of this perfidious regime continues. Saw Naing Gae is just eight years old. He saw the Burmese military shoot dead his mother and his father. He was then trafficked across the border into Thailand and sold to a Thai family. Deeply traumatised, he managed to escape and made his way to the camp where he is staying with a group of 30 other orphans. Every trace: of joy and innocence had been stamped out of him; and all that by the age of eight.
Saw Naing Gae squatted alongside four other children when I met him. Those other children—brothers and sisters—had seen their parents brutally murdered as well. The oldest girl, aged 12, is now head of their family, and she dissolved into tears as she recounted their story.
Unlike Saw Naing Gae, Naw Pi Lay did not survive. Aged 45, the mother of five children and pregnant with her sixth, she was murdered in June last year by the Burmese militia. During a massacre in the Dooplaya district of the Karen state, 12 other people were killed, including children aged 12, seven, five and two. That is not anecdote. It is carefully documented and I sent the documentation to Her Majesty's Government on my return in the spring.
In Chiang Mai I met the authors of a meticulous 120-page report on the Burmese military regime's use of sexual violence in the Shan state over the past six years. The report of the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women's Action Network, Licence To Rape, details how rape has been used as a weapon of war. Sexual violence, especially widespread gang rape, has terrorised and humiliated communities, flaunting the power of the regime and "rewarding" troops and demoralising resistance forces. The truth is that the Burma junta has turned its country into one vast concentration camp.
218 At Mae Sot, we took evidence from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. It provided me with more than 100 pages of carefully documented examples of human rights violations committed by Burmese military over the past 12 months alone.
Even if the British Government refuse to accept that genocide is taking place, as they have done in the past, it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that war crimes are being inflicted on the Karen, Karenni and Shan; that in itself should be enough to justify the setting up of an international criminal tribunal by the UN Security Council to try Burma's military regime.
With the recent crackdown against the National League for Democracy and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Italian under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, Margherita Boniver, said that the European Union will be considering in detail the possibility of submitting the issue to the UN Security Council. Italy will take over the presidency of the European Union this month, so I hope that when the Minister replies, she will tell us that the Government will give their full support to the initiative.
To conclude, the Government should ban all new investment by British companies, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, argued. It should also call on the Security Council to set up an international criminal tribunal to try the Burmese regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. I hope that the Minister will answer the question that I put last Wednesday at Question Time; if this is not genocide, what is?
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ Viscount Slim
My Lords, I must agree with what the noble Baroness and the two noble Lords have said. I want to consider one or two other aspects.
There is no doubt that a military government who rule by tyranny, lies, spies and torture can never gain the confidence, pride or loyalty of the people. That is extremely stupid because the greatest resource in Burma is the people; they are a marvellous people. They have initiative when they are free, and could be educated; they are good at business and the country will turn.
What most perturbs me is the attitude of outside countries towards the junta. The junta does not involve a pleasant or good set-up, but to keep slanging it is perhaps not the best way forward. We need to engage with it and, as they say, to get stuck into it. Merely making rude remarks is not the best approach.
In my experience from other parts of the world, in any government and military junta there are internal schisms. If we could get in among the junta and talk, we might find that people in it hold different views, although they enjoy the perks that go with the job. For that reason, I say to the Minister—I believe that she will agree—that we have an outstanding ambassador in Rangoon (Yandong) and a very small staff. I do not expect her to answer my point but I hope that she will take note of it. I wonder, for the task that we have, whether our embassy is set up to deal with a very 219 difficult situation. I leave that point at that; there could be some improvement. A penny-pinching attitude, from which we all suffer today, is not the right way to go about an embassy in Rangoon, particularly now. I say that because every Burmese one meets, whether he is outside the country or inside it—I have knowledge of both—expects us, the British, to take a lead in fighting for his freedom and allowing democracy to take its course.
I understand—the Minister may correct me—that a mission from Europe will go to the country shortly. If it is of any help, I respectfully say that I hope that the mission will not be enormous. I hope that the mission will be small and very well targeted when it meets the junta, and that the team that is going out will have clear objectives. The aims and objectives should be properly settled among the team before it arrives.
I hope that we, the British, will take some part in that and that we will take a lead for the reasons that I gave. The frightened, beaten and cowed population of Burma today look to us to help them. It would be very wrong of us if we did not take a prime role in ensuring the future democracy of Myanmar.
Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the United Nations representative, is having great difficulty getting to see the military junta and Daw Suu Kyi. I do not believe that that has been mentioned; the noble Baroness may have done so. We must support him in every way; he has the most difficult job. In my conversations with him in Kuala Lumpur, it was clear that he has a tough assignment and needs every help. We, the British, know how to help him.
One cannot help but admire Daw Suu Kyi. I understand, after Mr Razali met her—after great difficulty—that she is supposed to be in a government guest house and well looked after. Do we have any news on where she actually is? Is she safe? I have known too many nations of this ilk that have referred to a government guest house when it is really a dungeon.
A further matter—I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in view of all its different responsibilities, will put Burma, or Myanmar, high on its list.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I shall differ to some degree from the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, much as I respect his special knowledge. Something must be done to secure the freedom, and the freedom to contribute to the political life of her country, of that remarkable woman Aung San Suu Kyi. Here is a Nobel prizewinner, the leader of a party elected by the people by an overwhelming majority 13 years ago, and still widely supported, held as a prisoner by a ruthless, unelected and antediluvian military junta. This was a cynical but not unexpected act by a government which feels threatened by any sign of political freedom.
The EU moved, rightly, to secure and agree a common position which limits travel abroad by the junta and intends to freeze their assets outside the 220 country. I was glad to hear, I am ashamed to say for the first time, that there is to be an EU mission there. If we are to judge by similar procedures on Zimbabwe this is unlikely to prove effective. Meanwhile the Secretary of State has expressed our grave concern to the Burmese Ambassador in London and I am delighted to see that the US has put in place some strong sanctions. I hope that we shall imitate them as far as we can.
The Burmese generals have defied the UN by putting into custody the one political leader who has true and widespread popular support. The only people that she needs protection from are the tyrants who seized her with violence. Unfortunately, although the EU and the UN can, and I hope will, use economic and political pressure to some degree, those best placed to act politically are the ASEAN powers and China. Burma will take over the presidency of ASEAN in 2006. What can the UK, the UN and the EU do to cause ASEAN to act to bring about Aung San Suu Kyi's immediate release and the resumption of talks in a safe situation? I entirely agree that it would be appropriate for the ASEAN countries to be speaking behind the scenes. That is what I hope they are doing, but we need to be sure that they are doing that. We have seen in Zimbabwe that we tend to hide behind the idea that quiet diplomacy must not be interrupted and embarrassed by any public acts. In this case our country needs to be as public as possible.
Economic prosperity, political stability and the rule of law in Burma can only be in the interests of her neighbours and of ASEAN, but that begs the question of the agenda of the opium traders and of some oil and gas producers and consumers. We could do something there. The military regime in Burma lives by the profits it makes from the production of opium and the manufacture of heroin and amphetamines. There is evidence that the Chinese are playing an active part inside Burma in the extraction of heroin from opium. The noble and brave Baroness, Lady Cox, has testified many times to what this beastly regime is doing to its people while, with all the immense revenues that they are securing, they are providing no schools, no clinics and no medical care. They rule by violence, and they are turning the people into addicts. Long-term damage will be very hard to put right. That is where I differ from the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in that we have to be heard to be speaking out by the people of Burma.
I hope the Government can tell us tonight that we shall be strongly supporting the Americans and urging the Security Council to withdraw the UN representative if Aung San Suu Kyi is not instantly released, and allowed to resume her constructive political dialogue with the regime. I support the idea of some kind of human rights tribunal, but in my experience, that is a long way off. Efforts to secure action to help the people of Zimbabwe, suffering under a similar murderous regime, have been thwarted in the UN by the concerted action of the African Union. I hope the many countries who condemn the Burmese junta will combine to cause the ASEAN countries, and especially China, to act against Burma, both through the UN and separately. It is not enough for ASEAN 221 just to call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. She must be free to resume her political activities. As for the UN, there is little point in a vast. international organisation if it cannot protect the weak and the victims of tyranny or, at any rate, be seen to try to do so.
Quiet diplomacy is much too comfortable. If the UN allows its representatives to be flouted, as Mr Razai: has been, it is buying time for the junta to get away with total inaction. Mr Razai: represents a world organisation, and he should have been asked to refuse publicly to accept anything but the instant release into his care of Aung San Suu Kyi. Who could speak for the people of Burma, if not the UN? We and the Americans must, with the EU, immediately act to cut off the overseas resources of the junta, bring pressure to bear on the oil companies and the users of Burma's oil and gas, and try to secure some action from China. That will probably have to be done behind the scenes.
It is a mockery to have an international body such as the UN, which includes an expensive Human Rights Commission, and which purports to stand for the freedom of peoples to choose their governments and to live in peace, doing nothing visible and effective. That is largely because such groups as the African Union, although I hope not ASEAN, are not prepared to act or to allow action against members of the new trade union of selfish, third world leaders who care very little about their people and a lot about the personal power of the leaders themselves.
We have a particular duty to press for this, because we should never forget the courageous behaviour of our wartime allies in Burma, especially the Karen. I heard them described only yesterday by an old friend, who was once a young officer in the 14th Army in Burma, fighting the Japanese, as the bravest people he ever knew, loyal and steadfast beyond belief. We must not fail if there is anything we could do to give them a voice, and free them from a tyranny that does not even pretend to be caring for its people.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Lord Chan
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on introducing this timely debate on Burma. We should remember that the country has been suffering from internal warfare and military oppression for more than 30 years.
Last Thursday, the democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated her. 58th birthday in prison. She has been either under house arrest or confined in prison for most of the past 14 years. The National League for Democracy, the political party she leads, has been banned for the same period.
Elected members of parliament and other pro-democracy supporters have been forced to flee. Many of those who stayed were arrested, tortured or killed by the military dictatorship. Burma's military dictatorship spends more than half the national budget on arms while the people of Burma live in poverty. Apart from ruling Burma without a mandate, the army has adopted a strategy for destabilising and 222 terrorising the ethnic minority populations, as has been described by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I have visited Mizoram whose people, the Mizos, also live in northern Burma.
The Karen people, living in a discrete state bordering Thailand, have been savagely treated. The Burmese army assaults Karen villages with mortars and machine gun fire, setting homes on fire and looting the possessions of these poor villagers. Landmines are then scattered around the village, forcing their residents to flee. These atrocities are even worse because they affect mainly women and children. Women are murdered even when pregnant and children wounded and maimed by shrapnel from landmines.
The war is one of genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the army against ethnic minorities in Burma as well as anyone who supports and cares for these ethnic minorities. At any moment, all villagers can be uprooted and forced to flee their homes with only what is on their backs.
Families have been separated due to persecution by the army. As a consequence, the number of orphans, single-parent families and families with missing children has increased. Some Karen parents have seen their children burned alive by the army.
In addition to the statistics identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, more than 1 million refugees from Burma have fled to neighbouring countries. One hundred and fifty thousand are in refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh. The rest are scattered. In the camps, refugees have the opportunity for education beyond high school, and freedom from religious and other types of persecution. In the refugee camps, many non-governmental organisations are taking care of the health, food and other needs of the refugees. I declare my support for a Christian NGO based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that devotes itself to helping ethnic minorities in Burma.
Ten ethnic minority groups in Burma joined to form the Ethnic Nationalities Consultation in November 2002 in order actively to work on the problems of narcotics, internally displaced people and human rights violations by the Burma dictators. But they need help from governments in Europe. As Her Majesty's Government have historic links with Burma, we should use them to influence the military rulers through dialogue and to urge the ASEAN countries to press Burma's military rulers to change their ways. If this does not lead to corrective action, I join other noble Lords in urging Her Majesty's Government to impose economic sanctions on Burma by advising British companies not to support the military government through trade, tourism and development aid.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, I join all noble Lords who have expressed congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, she is an inspiration to us all. I congratulate her on her timing in securing the debate because we are still 223 reeling with shock and dismay on hearing the dreadful news of the armed attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues on 30th May. This appalling crime has been condemned throughout the world, including unprecedented statements from ASEAN and Beijing. However, exactly what happened is still unclear because Aung San Suu Kyi is being held incommunicado in the notorious Insein prison, according to the Foreign Office Minister, Mike O'Brien, whose forthright comments last Thursday we welcomed. The survivors are also in prison and cannot speak about their experiences.
We know that the government instigated the attack, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, explained, and that somewhere between 60 and 100 people were killed. Their bodies were burned and many were injured. Immediately afterwards, NLD offices throughout the country were closed and hundreds of supporters were arrested.
It is difficult to see how the policy of engagement advocated by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and pursued by the UN for the past two years can be continued in these circumstances. For example, before the International Labour Conference this month, the ILO had reached agreement with the Government of Myanmar for the appointment of a facilitator to assist the victims of forced labour, and for a plan of action which was to include a pilot road-building project, alternatives to the use of forced labour, and "information and awareness raising".
Can it be that in spite of the very slow progress by Myanmar towards compliance with the Forced Labour Convention, and despite the events of May 30th, the ILO intends to carry on with this programme? I might ask the same question of the UN office on drugs and crime, which has been co-operating with the Government of Myamnar in trying to eliminate the opium poppy cultivation on which 350,000 households rely for their main income, but which also provides a valuable source of revenue to the junta itself.
We note that the EU has imposed tighter sanctions, added some of the generals' cronies to the travel-ban list, and frozen some of their assets. These steps are welcome, but they are not proportionate to the regime's offences. This latest unprovoked assault comes on top of 13 years of oppression and persecution of the NLD—since the party won the 1990 election. There are 1,500 political prisoners, and hundreds of thousands of victims of the forced labour programme, and of the military operations against ethnic minorities which we have heard so vividly described. The programme of child soldiers is especially appalling and pernicious, and requires special attention when we decide what action we are to take. The junta has so far been impervious to the appeals of the UN Secretary-General, repeated again today, to release Aung San Suu Kyi and enter into a genuine political dialogue with the NLD. The UN special envoy, Mr Razali Ismail, has said that the only thing to make the generals sit up and listen would be the threat of UN sanctions, which have not been seen 224 as a practical option until now because of lack of support from China. However, many of your Lordships have said that the time has come when we should explore this possibility.
The situation may now have changed. We should at least try out a draft resolution on mandatory sanctions on other members of the Security Council to see whether we could get agreement on a measure that would cut off Burmese exports of textiles, energy, gems and timber, and block investment and tourism, all of which earn foreign currency for the regime while the people languish in misery. If we cannot get support for UN action, we should at least try to get a common policy on tougher measures with the United States and Japan.
§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for raising again the important issue of Burma. Tonight the House has again united in supporting her.
Last month, with the vicious ambush described by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, Burma's military dictatorship ended any pretence that it was ever genuine about reform. I understand that Daw Suu Kyi is being held in a two-room hut in Insein Prison, Rangoon. James Mawdsley was kept in a building close to the huts for three months in 1998, and tells me that it was absolute hell. There is a world of difference between house arrest and Insein Prison. The ICRC is not allowed to visit Daw Suu Kyi, and itself does not know the exact number of people being detained so it has to accept the figure given by the SPDC.
Last December the Minister was commendably robust in her winding-up speech to another excellent debate on Burma. The House will be looking for some strong words again tonight. The time has come to turn up the pressure on the SPDC. Can the noble Baroness confirm that Her Majesty's Government have called for a full account of what happened that day; for Daw Suu Kyi and the other leaders of the NLD—gaoled by the SPDC before and after the attack—to be released from confinement of any kind; and for the NLD to be permitted to reopen their offices? The regime's strategy of re-arresting Daw Suu Kyi is to make her release, rather than democratic reform, the focus of international pressure. What assurance will the Government give that pressure will be stepped up if she is released but reform is not forthcoming?
We must take measures to cut off the regime's supplies and support without harming the people whom we are trying to help. The EU continues to lag far behind US policy. In 1997 the US banned all new investment in Burma. As my noble friend Lady Cox said, the US looks likely to impose new trade sanctions that would ban imports from Burma, extend the visa ban against those supporting the SPDC, freeze Burma's assets in US banks and require the Bush administration to oppose international loans to the country. The Senate vote on the sanctions legislation was 97 to one in favour—a greater cross-party consensus than on any other foreign 225 policy issue. Europe's feeble response, in contrast, has been to extend a visa ban and asset freeze against the regime.
The state department has already extended visa restrictions to include all officials of an organisation related to the junta—the Union Solidarity and Development Association—and the managers of state-run enterprises so that they and their families can be banned as well. Will Her Majesty's Government encourage the EU to place restrictions on travel-related transactions that benefit the SPDC and its supporters?
The US Government have also hinted that they will ask the UN Security Council to deal with the case of Burma. If the UK took the initiative at this stage, the added momentum might succeed in getting Security Council action on Burma. The UN envoy Razali has said publicly—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made this point—that the only thing that would make the generals sit up and listen is the threat of UN Security Council sanctions.
Will Her Majesty's Government, therefore, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, take Burma to the council and push for the imposition of targeted sanctions to include an investment ban, an arms embargo and a ban on certain exports, including oil, gas, gems, minerals and garments?
Ending on a positive note, I welcome growing interest and measures taken by the outside world to curb the regime. Japan, Burma's largest single aid donor—excluding Rangoon's patron China—also warned it could cut off millions of dollars in assistance if the regime failed to free Daw Suu Kyi and take steps towards political change. The Association of South-East Asian Nations' unprecedented call for a "peaceful transition to democracy" in Burma is a break from the long-standing tradition of non-interference that has allowed Burma to participate in ASEAN meetings without concern that its poor human rights record or inept economic management would be criticised.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and brave Baroness, Lady Cox, for the opportunity that she has given us for a serious debate on the extremely grave situation in Burma and the Government's response to it. I fully agree with much of what has been said by noble Lords in a number of moving and passionate speeches.
When we last debated Burma in this House on 3rd December I referred to some very modest positive developments within the country and hoped that that would be a signal of further progress to follow. Sadly, that is not the case. Instead, senior general Than Shwe seems set on a course of negative, ham-fisted confrontation with the democratic opposition which will be of no benefit to the people of Burma whatever. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester so effectively described, the outrageous armed attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy supporters on 30th May was clearly organised and perpetrated by elements of the military 226 regime. It was the culmination of several months of carefully orchestrated and well-documented violence and intimidation.
Credible eyewitness reports indicate that dozens of people were killed and many injured, far in excess of the official figures put out by the authorities—as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, mentioned. Since that event, scores of people, including members of the National League for Democracy, have been detained and many more are in hiding in fear of their lives. The regime also closed the offices of the NLD throughout Burma, and, temporarily, universities and schools.
As the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Astor, and other noble Lords said, we have received reliable reports that Aung San Suu Kyi is now being held in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison, under section 10(a) of the State Protection Law 1975. This draconian law allows for detention without access to family or lawyers for up to five years, with no appeal. This is a totally unacceptable way to treat anyone pursuing peaceful, political aims.
These reports make a mockery of the recent claims in Phnom Penh by the Burmese Foreign Minister that Aung San Suu Kyi is being detained simply for her own protection, and has led to our repeated calls for her immediate release, and the release of all political prisoners. On 19th June 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi's 58th birthday, my honourable friend Mike O'Brien repeatedly tried to telephone Aung San Suu Kyi but without success. The Deputy Foreign Minister was unwilling to talk to him. This further belies the claim that her detention is for her own protection. On 20th June he summoned the Burmese Ambassador and spoke in strong terms. He plans to see him again on 25th June.
The reasons for the regime's despicable actions are obvious. Since her release from house arrest in May 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi has made a number of trips around Burma to reopen closed NLD offices and open new ones. Wherever she has gone, thousands of supporters have turned out to greet her and listen to her speeches, despite harassment and threats from the regime and its paid thugs. The courage and support of those supporters has shown the military dictators that the results of the 1990 elections, the first for 30 years, when the NLD won a landslide victory, remain a true reflection of who should rightly be in power in Burma.
The regime's crass behaviour is sadly nothing new. Before her release last year, Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for a total of almost eight years. At the same time as attacking Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, and then gaoling her in its desperate efforts to remain in political power, the junta is also bankrupting the country's economy. As the noble Lord, Lord Chan, reminded us, Burma's health and education systems are in a terrible state because the regime invests so little in them. A total of just 0.5 per cent GDP was spent on both sectors in 227 1999–2000. The regime chose instead to spend what money it has on weapons and equipment for its 500,000 strong army. It is a stark example of how little the junta cares for the people of Burma.
It is tragic to see a beautiful country with so much potential brought to its knees by a lousy government. Burma was once rightly called "the rice bowl of Asia". Rangoon's university had a high reputation and attracted students from all over the region. Now students rarely turn up for classes. If they do, they risk finding the doors barred, as the military's knee-jerk reaction has been to close schools and universities whenever there is any sign of trouble.
As I stated in the December debate, human rights abuses, violence and repression continue throughout the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, Burma's ethnic nationalities suffer in particular, whether they be Muslim Rohingyas, Christian Karen or Buddhist Shan. Religion is no bar to brutality in Burma. A wide range of international NGOs regularly publish credible accounts of rape; torture; extra-judicial killings; forced relocation; the use of child soldiers; forced labour; denial of assembly; denial of expression; denial of movement; and discrimination on the grounds of religion and ethnicity. These accounts are dismissed out of hand by the Burmese regime. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords, that we ensure that those reports are brought to the attention of the international community and the United Nations. The regime's commitment to the international values and human rights standards of the UN—an organisation once headed by a distinguished Burmese statesman, U That—is woefully inadequate. Successive UN resolutions condemning abuse, championed by the UK, have demonstrated that.
We sponsored the human rights resolution at the UNCHR in April 2003, condemning human rights violations in Burma and expressing concern over discrimination on the basis of religious and ethnic background. The UN Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, has his work cut out. We fully support his efforts, and those of the International Labour Organisation, to get the regime to address the problems of forced labour through their resident representative in Rangoon.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and other noble Lords referred to the ASEAN countries. Even Burma's ASEAN neighbours are now recognising that the grave situation in Burma must be addressed. In an unprecedented move, and contrary to their earlier stance of non-interference, foreign ministers discussed the internal situation in Burma at their meeting in Phnom Penh on 17th June and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues. In their final communique, they urged the Burmese regime to resume dialogue with all parties concerned to promote national reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy. They also reaffirmed support for the efforts of the UN Secretary-General's special representative, Tan Sri Razali Ismail. We welcome 228 very strongly ASEAN's statement. No-one in Phnom Penh was convinced by the claim of Burma's Foreign Minister that his government are still committed to dialogue and a transition to democracy.
I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who speaks with great experience on this grave matter, that the UK remains at the forefront of international action in continuing to press for the return of human rights and democracy to Burma. We work very closely with our EU partners. The EU's core policy on Burma is contained in a common position, first agreed in 1996. It includes an arms embargo, a ban on defence links, a ban on high-level bilateral government visits, a ban on non-humanitarian aid, a ban on the supply of equipment that might be used for internal repression or terrorism, and an asset freeze and visa ban on members of the regime and military. In response to the current situation, the EU Foreign Ministers agreed on 16th June to introduce further measures extending the visa ban and assets freeze on members of the regime, their families and associates, and tightening the arms embargo.
We fully, actively and loudly support the excellent work carried out by the UN Secretary General's special representative to Burma, Tan Sri Razali Ismail. We remain very active in seeking to persuade Burma's neighbours, China, India and Thailand, as well as Japan and other relevant countries around the world, to do what they can to bring pressure to bear on the regime to change its ways.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and other noble Lords mentioned the hard-hitting article by Colin Powell. President Bush also criticised the Burmese regime and asked whether we would endorse the strong criticism by the US. On behalf of the Government, I very much welcome that strong engagement by the United States.
The UK does not encourage trade, investment or any tourism in Burma. My noble friend Lord Faulkner asked about the Government's position on BAT. I am pleased to tell him that my honourable friend Mike O'Brien will be meeting the chairman of BAT very soon to discuss the situation.
Noble Lords asked a number of questions which I shall rapidly go through; in respect of those which I do not get to I shall ensure that noble Lords receive full written answers. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether HMG are considering similar measures to those proposed by the US. We have no powers to impose unilateral financial sanctions except in limited cases where the target regime is taking or is likely to take action to the detriment of the United Kingdom. Sanctions should not be imposed merely as a symbolic gesture but should be designed to have real impact. That is why we prefer multilateral action.
The noble Baroness also asked about the proposal for Thailand to act as a mediator. The United Kingdom would encourage tripartite talks if all parties were genuinely represented and fully involved in the process. She also asked about pressure on ASEAN. I hope that I have covered that in my speech. In 229 particular, the noble Baroness criticised the funding of environmental projects. We currently provide funding through carefully selected agencies to protect and conserve biological and cultural diversity. It includes projects on wildlife, forest conservation and also on creating capacity within local communities in some of the poorest areas of Burma. In 2003–04, our assistance will amount to about £122,000. I shall ensure that the noble Baroness receives written answers for her other questions.
My noble friend Lord Faulkner criticised the Government on the basis of travel advice and the website. UK policy is not to support or encourage tourism in Burma. The FCO country profile on the website makes that clear. We bring attention to the human rights situation in Burma. However, the separate FCO travel advice must be objective, based on risks to British visitors and not used as a political device. I ask other noble Lords for their patience in waiting for written answers from me.
Finally, I repeat something that we have made very clear to the Burmese regime on many occasions. We stand prepared to respond proportionately and we support a genuine transition to civilian rule in Burma. We must start with the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her fellow NLD detainees and all political prisoners. At the same time, the regime should be in no doubt about our resolve to press for further measures if these steps are not taken very soon.