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9 Dec 2009 : Column 90WH—continued

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been mentioned. There is no doubt that the ability of the ASEAN powers to put pressure on Burma is considerable, at least in theory. Many of us have been disappointed over the past few years that some ASEAN countries have not been more robust towards Burma. Burma's main outlet to the world is through ASEAN meetings and conferences. I hope that the British Government, both bilaterally and in direct relations with ASEAN, will bring more pressure to bear on
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ASEAN countries, and stand up for what many of those countries believe about democratic accountability, free elections and so on.

I will conclude with a number of final points. First, we are all overwhelmed by the tales of suffering that we hear, not only via the media but through personal meetings with people who have been in Burma, and from Burmese minorities. The Burmese people are not alone in their suffering as there are many other regimes, but they are a quiet, dignified people, and it is important that we speak up on their behalf through Parliament. It is depressing that over the past four years in which I have participated in such debates, we have seen only a small amount of progress. However, we can at least collectively express our outrage through Parliament. I hope that in a positive, rather than negative way, we can put pressure on the British Government so that the Foreign Office can say to countries, "Pressure is being brought to bear on us by the democratic representatives of the British people".

We need a dual track of attempts at dialogue with the Burmese Government, but also to put pressure on them and their neighbours, crucially, as colleagues have mentioned, the two big states. The first of those states is India, which is a member of the British Commonwealth. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is no longer in the Chamber, about using the good offices of the Commonwealth. The second state is China, which I know is less easy. The Chinese do not wish to discuss their relations with a whole raft of regimes throughout the world, about which it is to their economic benefit to keep quiet regarding demonstrable crimes against humanity and, in some cases, war crimes. Nevertheless, the British Government have a duty to be quite robust with the Chinese Government on the matter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, raises these points whenever we meet senior members of the Chinese Government.

The pressure exerted through the United Nations is also crucial. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) made a very important observation, recognising that he had not originally been persuaded of this. Many of these regimes may brush aside the threat of a war crimes inquiry, but I think it gnaws at their vitals. It makes them incredibly careful about where they travel to and they are always fearful that one day or other, their regime might fall.

Regime change does not usually happen quickly. I just scribbled down some notes on this, à la the old staff college lecturer in me. Regime change can come about internally; ultimately, there can be a revolution or coup d'état. It can come about externally, by two methods. One is what happened to the old white Rhodesian regime when the South African Government literally turned the power off and said, "That's it, gentlemen. It's the endgame. We're not prepared to support you any more." There is a chance that that could still happen, ironically, in Zimbabwe, but the current South African Government do not want to do it. The Chinese could probably bring about regime change in North Korea by switching the power off, but for understandable reasons, they do not want to do so.

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Finally, there is the threat of force. One of the great tragedies of international relations in the past decade relates to the fact that there was a narrow window of opportunity after 9/11 when the world actively supported and sympathised with the United States of America. The American threat of force and, indeed, its intervention against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan caused many regimes suddenly to change their attitude and policies. The North Koreans shifted-they were absolutely terrified-and Colonel Gaddafi, who, crab-like, was already moving in that direction, moved very quickly indeed. Sadly, that has gone, but at least the threat of force should never be removed from the diplomatic table. If the threat of force is removed, there is no requirement on these odious regimes to make any change at all.

I hope that the Minister will accept not my remarks but the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, who initiated the debate, and of other hon. Members in the way in which they were made, which I hope he will regard as both constructive and supportive.

10.42 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this important Adjournment debate and on the passionate and authentic way in which he presented our shared concerns on the human rights abuses that continue to scar Burma and the issues of greatest concern to the international community. The debate has displayed a unity of purpose, shared concern and a determination to find ways to adopt practical measures that will influence the regime and move the situation forward.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for his long-standing work on raising the profile and the issue of Burma in the House and for his work to promote the need to take more decisive action. I join the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in paying tribute to the work, over a very long time, of Mr. Speaker in championing this issue and ensuring that Britain regards it as a priority.

I am sure that hon. Members would acknowledge on a cross-party basis that this matter concerns my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister very deeply. He has given the issue a considerable amount of his personal attention and leadership. He has rightly described Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the most courageous individuals of our lifetime-of our generation-as a result of the sacrifices and suffering that she has had to tolerate because she has stayed true to her people and her principles. She has suffered a lot of personal pain and tragedy as a consequence.

We share the deep concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House for the Burmese people-the concern about the multiple humanitarian crises, appalling human rights abuses and the fact that there has been precious little progress towards genuine democracy. We are committed to doing all we can, in a number of ways, to help the people of Burma to a better future, as hon. Members suggested. Tough EU sanctions targeted at the regime leadership underline our determination to see real political reform. Robust dialogue makes our
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concerns clear, but also emphasises our readiness to respond to progress. With regard to humanitarian aid, the UK, as hon. Members said, is the largest donor this year, alongside Japan, which genuinely makes a difference in alleviating the suffering of Burma's poor.

On the points made by the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), there is concern that people are being charged for some of the aid; that is what we are told. The UNDP is investigating those allegations as a matter of urgency, and we will report to the House when we receive clarification of exactly what is happening on the ground. Our key objectives remain the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi-we should remember that there are more than 2,000 political prisoners-and the start of a genuine process of political dialogue involving all opposition and ethnic groups. The elections planned for 2010-hon. Members asked where we stood on this-will have no international legitimacy unless those and other steps are taken as a matter of urgency. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle).

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked, reasonably, what credible steps would allow us to take a more sympathetic view of the elections next year. First, the very constitution on which the elections are based would have to be changed, because it inherently means an unfair process and an unfair outcome. Inevitably, the release not only of Aung San Suu Kyi but all political prisoners would be necessary before any elections, to give sufficient time for those people to participate and to organise appropriately by campaigning and making their pitch to the people of Burma. The regime would have to take many steps in a very short time for us to be willing to consider those elections as having any legitimacy whatever, and I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is very little sign of the regime being willing to do that.

Many hon. Members raised the question of our contact with other countries and with international institutions. I assure them that we use every opportunity to make the case as to why those countries with the closest relationships with Burma should be doing more to make it clear to the regime that its behaviour is intolerable. The Prime Minister has discussed Burma in the past few weeks with the Prime Minister of Japan and the UN Secretary-General. In September, he raised Burma with the Chinese President. He has raised it on a number of occasions recently with the Prime Minister of India. There are many such occasions. Whenever we are involved in bilateral discussions at the highest levels, we constantly raise Burma and we acknowledge the point that hon. Members have made-arguably, those countries that have the closest relationships with the Burmese regime are in the best position to exercise influence. They are allies of ours and are countries with which we have a largely positive relationship, and we make it clear that it matters to our bilateral relationship that they take their responsibilities seriously with regard to human rights in Burma.

We are also working closely with the US, Australia and European Union partners. We agree with the US that any relaxation of sanctions must be only in response to tangible progress. The EU has not ruled out further sanctions if the situation deteriorates. The UK was instrumental in securing additional financial measures
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when Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced in August to a further 18 months under house arrest. We continue to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General and his good offices mission. The UN has a central role to play.

The hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire, for East Dunbartonshire and for Mid-Norfolk asked about US dialogue. Previously, the Americans' position was one of isolation and sanctions, but they have adopted one of engagement and sanctions following their review. It must be made clear, however, that there is absolutely no sign that the US, the EU or the international community has any intention of reducing economic sanctions against the regime, because we have seen no significant shift whatever from it so far. This is not an either/or scenario. It is perfectly reasonable, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, to have a strategy of engagement and sanctions. If we looked at the strategy adopted until the Americans undertook their review, we would see that they were right to decide that it was time to move from isolation and sanctions to engagement and sanctions.

Hon. Members have asked about the ASEAN countries, and I have raised these issues with ASEAN ambassadors on a couple of occasions-indeed, we constantly raise them. The ASEAN countries are an emerging institution, and the UK should engage with its power brokers and economies in a more positive and meaningful way. It is worth noting, however, that ASEAN recently set up a commission on human rights, so it recognises that it has a lot of work to do specifically on human rights. We should support the establishment of that commission, but we should ensure that it undertakes meaningful work and begins to pressure ASEAN members over their human rights performance. We will keep a close eye on progress.

I turn now to the contact that our ambassador and our country have recently had with Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting that took place between our ambassador and Aung San Suu Kyi on 9 October was a small but welcome development. She requested the meeting to discuss sanctions, and we invited US and Australian representatives to attend. At the meeting, she asked for information on the scope, impact and intent behind EU sanctions, and our ambassador answered her questions and provided additional written material afterwards. Importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi was seeking information, rather than setting out a clear position.

To respond to the question from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, we are of course keen for further meetings to take place, and we have made that clear to the Burmese authorities. No further meeting has yet taken place, but we do have regular dialogue with the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi's party. Subsequent to the meeting on 9 October, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a second letter to Than Shwe asking for a meeting with him. It will be interesting to see how the regime responds-it still has to respond-to that formal request.

If I might update hon. Members, we have been told that Aung San Suu Kyi today had a 50-minute meeting with the Burmese Liaison Minister, which is an interesting step forward. However, we should also note that the state media recently described Aung San Suu Kyi's initiative as dishonest, which remains a cause of concern. However, there is continuing dialogue, and we hope that Than Shwe will see fit not only to meet Aung San Suu
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Kyi, but seriously to engage with her on the changes that need to be made in Burma.

On the more general question of political prisoners, there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma. Some individuals have been given sentences of up to 104 years in jail and have deliberately been moved to prisons in isolated parts of the country. As hon. Members have said-the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) put this most powerfully-we are talking about individuals and about the human cost of the abuses that the regime perpetrates every day, so let me give an example. Every month, the sister of one political prisoner travels three days each way by plane, road and boat to take food and supplies to her brother in a remote prison.

Through the UN and the EU, and in direct contacts with the regime, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. Furthermore-hon. Members asked about this-we pursue and highlight specific cases. To give a tangible example, the FCO has launched an online campaign that profiles different political prisoners each week. We are doing that in partnership with the Burmese Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and with Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Crabb: I welcome the developments that the Minister has just described, but can he point to any examples of the Burmese regime releasing any political prisoners at all following pressure from the UK, the EU or the United States?

Mr. Lewis: Frankly, no. The regime is still reluctant to do so, but we believe that pressure can work. Despite the trumped-up charges in Aung San Suu Kyi's bogus trial, the regime clearly took some note of the pressure applied by the international community once the verdict was passed, so we need to maintain that pressure.

I was about to refer to the specific example of a former political prisoner about whom our ambassador wrote in his Guardian blog last week. Incredibly, the judge told this prisoner-a lawyer by profession-that he must be guilty of at least one of the 90 charges against him and, without further ado, sentenced him to 10 years' hard labour. The judge then invited him to speak, but warned him that every sentence that he uttered would add five years to his jail term. That is a recent example of what takes place from a court in Burma.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister may have good reason for this omission, but he has not referred much to the idea of a United Nations commission of inquiry.

Mr. Lewis: I was coming next to crimes against humanity and the proposed commission of inquiry. As hon. Members have said, there is no doubt that appalling human rights abuses are committed daily in Burma.
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Political freedom is absent and dissent is brutally crushed. The treatment of Burma's ethnic groups is of particular concern. We will continue to use the UN human rights bodies to highlight those abuses. In recent weeks, the UK helped to secure a strong UN General Assembly resolution on human rights abuses in Burma.

The work of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma is crucial in investigating reports of human rights abuses, and we have urged the Burmese authorities to grant him full access. Comments have been made about the UN special envoy to Burma, who now has a new role. All that I will say is that we hope that his replacement proves effective, can make a real difference and has credibility in his engagement with the regime. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict. I hope that we get somebody of high esteem and status to fill that position. Britain is actively seeking to ensure that that happens, because this is an issue of growing concern around the world.

The UK position on the commission of inquiry is clear. We have sought to clarify the support for such an initiative in the Security Council, and it is clear that there is not sufficient support at the moment to achieve the consensus that would deliver the necessary resolution. For us to table a vote that would be defeated would be a propaganda victory par excellence for the Burmese regime. The reason why we are being cautious about the commission of inquiry is not that we do not believe that it is right in principle, but that we believe that tabling a resolution that was voted down would backfire considerably in realpolitik terms. I therefore ask hon. Members to consider the difficult position that we are in and to understand that we continue to engage with partners to see whether there will be any shift in the position.

Since the bogus trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, we have pushed strongly for the adoption of a comprehensive arms embargo against the Burmese regime. Our request for an embargo was made in a letter from the Prime Minister to the UN Secretary-General. We continue to believe that such an embargo would have a significant impact on the regime's behaviour, and we hope that the UN Security Council will give serious consideration to it in the near future.

This has been an excellent debate. It has sent a strong and clear message to the people of Burma and their representatives in this country that their plight will not be forgotten, that we will use the House to amplify criticism of the human rights abuses in Burma and that will do everything that we can across the parties to make a difference.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I thank Members for their thoughtful and helpful contributions to the debate on Burma. I ask those who are not staying for the next debate to leave quietly. We now move to a debate on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

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King James Bible

11 am

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): It is a pleasure, Mr. Hancock, to speak under your chairmanship. I feel that I ought to begin with an expression of disappointment. On three separate occasions I have raised the matter of the 400th anniversary of the authorised or King James Bible with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The most recent occasion was in October. It was disappointing that the Department stated that it would not mark the anniversary. That is especially so because I believe that it runs contrary to the Department's remit.

Under the heading "What we do" the Department's website states:

We have the opportunity to attract many thousands of visitors from the United States and elsewhere, yet there are no plans to take advantage of that. The website says that the Department "Sets arts policy" and that it seeks to

Here we have the single greatest piece of literature in the English language-the highest peak of all English literature-yet the Department says that it will not mark the anniversary.

With reference to the historic environment, the Department's website states that it is responsible for the promotion of historic national treasures, including the royal palaces. One of those is Hampton Court, where, in 1604, King James called the Hampton Court conference, which commissioned the King James Bible. Surely during such a year as 2011, and in connection with such an anniversary, more could be made of Hampton Court; and surely the Department could help to highlight Hampton Court and its role in producing the King James Bible.

The Department's refusal to mark the anniversary is a failure fully to discharge its own remit. However, it is much more than that. I believe that it lets down the nation. I am therefore grateful to the powers that be that we are able to debate the matter today. Of course, the phrase "the powers that be" is part of our language and speech only because of the King James version of the Bible. That is one of the many reasons why the 400th anniversary is so important, and why it should be commemorated.

The King James Bible is the greatest and most influential piece of literature in the English language. Poet laureate Andrew Motion said of it:

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