HL Deb 07 July 2004 vol 663 cc800-2

3.21 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider the statements by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' foreign ministers on developments in Burma, made during preparations for the Asia-Europe summit meeting in September, to be sufficiently robust.

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

My Lords, the communiqué issued after the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Jakarta underlined the need for all strata of Burmese society to be involved in the continuing national convention, and encouraged all parties in Burma to continue their efforts to effect a smooth transition to democracy. It also emphasised the continuing relevance of last year's ASEAN communiqué, which called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Those are all essential steps for the progress to democracy in Burma that the EU supports.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she accept that, at a point where relations between the United States and its major allies are going through a very difficult patch, it is important that there be an Asia-Europe summit this year? Could she specifically rebut what I have heard from officials in some continental foreign ministries—that the British are not enormously bothered about whether ASEAN takes place? Does she nevertheless recognise that the participation of Burma in the ASEAN summit raises real difficulties for us all, and that we have to press the ASEAN governments to increase the pressure on Burma to introduce conditions under which it will move towards being a less authoritarian society?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean:

My Lords, I appreciate the importance of the ASEAN summit, at which the United Kingdom will be represented by my right honourable friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. However, the noble Lord has put his finger on the problem that the summit will have to face, which is whether the ASEAN countries will stick with all three of their candidates to join ASEAN, including Burma. They have put the point to us that if that is not acceptable to the EU, it is not acceptable to them to accept all 10 new members of the European Union. That is the dilemma that we face. We shall of course continue to press the ASEAN countries on the points about democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, and full participation in the convention.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester:

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the communiqué that foreign ministers published at the end of the ASEAN conference last week contained a declaration which said that they were in favour of the elimination of violence against women, and in favour of women having an important and highly respected place in south-east Asian societies? Does she not find it extraordinary that the communiqué failed to make any reference whatever to the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi or the involvement of the National League for Democracy in the future of Burma's democracy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean:

My Lords, in my Answer I was perhaps very diplomatic, but I think that the paragraphs that deal with Burma in the statement are not written in the forthright terms that British Ministers use in relation to Burma. However, the crucial point is that that paragraph is there. Do not let us forget that, only last year, that paragraph was inserted for the first time in the communiqué. I welcome the fact that there is such a paragraph again this year, but we would have expressed that paragraph more robustly.

Lord Avebury:

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with the reply that was given by Mr Xavier Solana, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, to a question about the ASEAN summit, which was that to have the summit we must have some movement? Would she therefore not think it necessary that we should spell out exactly what movement is required for the summit to take place? For instance, does it include the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the revision of the constitutional process so as to allow all political parties and ethnic groups to participate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean:

My Lords, the question is not about those specific points in relation to holding the summit, but about those points in relation to Burma being part of the ASEAN delegation to the summit. We have been very clear in setting out three developments that we want: first, the permanent release of Aung San Suu Kyi; secondly, a genuinely open and representative national convention; and thirdly, the NLD and other opposition parties being allowed to participate in it. If those conditions are fulfilled, there is no problem about Burma; if they are not, I suggest that there will be a great deal of hard arguing about it.

Lord Howell of Guildford:

My Lords, is the EU official pronouncement, which is posted on the Internet, correct that if Burma attends the forthcoming meeting the EU will not do so? Is it also correct that Cambodia has said that if Burma does not attend the meeting, it and Laos, which are attending for the first time, will not attend? Is there not a danger that, if those positions are taken up, we will end up breaking off the dialogue between Europe and the ASEAN countries? As they are the growth countries in the global economic system, it would not be a very brilliant idea to do that.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean:

Indeed, my Lords, it would not be a very brilliant idea, which is why I tried to couch my answers in fairly conditional terms about what is likely to happen. That is why I said to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there was a real dilemma. If we are being threatened and have to give way on the questions of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and of democratic representation in Burma and allow Burma to join anyway, there would be a great deal of unrest and unhappiness about our taking such a position. However, if we jeopardise the whole of the summit process—the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, rightly reminded us that it was enormously important in today's highly volatile international situation—that is a difficulty, too. I suggest that we are patient, continue with what we have set our hand to do in arguing for Burma to fulfil those conditions, and do our best to argue for the best possible position before the summit.