Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Eatwell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may give him the opportunity to correct the extraordinary error that he made just now when he said that manufacturing employment is rising for the first time since figures began. I can assure the noble Lord that, throughout the 1960s, manufacturing employment rose virtually every year, year on year, and that manufacturing employment is now 2 million below what it was in 1979. The small upturn that we have seen this year is not a compensation for those significant falls.

Lord Henley: My Lords, in no way did I say that it was compensation. Obviously it is not the numbers totally employed in manufacturing that matter but the total output and that, as we know, rises. I am prepared to look at what I did say and correct my figures should it be necessary to do so. Certainly, they have recently increased, and it is the first time in a very very long time that they have done so. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 24th April), Bill read a third time, and passed.

Myanmar (Burma): Human Rights

1.16 p.m.

Baroness Cox rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what measures they intend to take to bring pressure to bear on the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime in Myanmar (Burma) to respect the human rights of the Karen and other ethnic national minority groups in that country.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1179

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise in your Lordships' House the tragedy confronting the people of Myanmar, or Burma as it is better known, who are suffering from the brutal policies being carried out by the State Law and Order Restoration Council—the Orwellian name adopted by a regime which refused to acknowledge the results of the 1990 democratic elections; and still refuses to do so today.

The situation has deteriorated recently and the lives of tens of thousands of civilians are now endangered by military offences, by attacks on their places of refuge, by lack of essential supplies of food, medicine and shelter; and many other innocent civilians are suffering from grave violations of human rights, such as illegal imprisonment, torture and forced labour, tantamount to slavery.

The SLORC regime's policies are responsible for turning Burma into one of the worst places in the world today, in terms of the suffering cold-bloodedly inflicted on vast numbers of people, especially ethnic minorities such as the Karen and the Mon. Moreover, many others who have dared to try to promote fundamental principles of freedom and democracy, such as the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have paid and are still paying a high price for their commitments.

There are so many issues to be raised, so many questions to be asked and so much suffering which needs to be documented that I am most grateful to other noble Lords who will be making their distinctive contributions to the debate. For example, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will be speaking in detail about the issue of forced labour. I shall, therefore, touch only very briefly upon that outrageous policy being perpetrated by the SLORC regime. I believe that my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery will remind us of the courage of the Karen soldiers who fought alongside the British with great valour and who now feel deeply disappointed by Britain's apparent lack of concern for the plight of their people. As I do not have a right of reply at the end of the debate, perhaps I may now thank all noble Lords taking part and also my noble friend the Minister for making possible today's debate on this important and tragic topic.

My own contribution will focus primarily on those aspects of the situation with which I have some first-hand acquaintance. Last November, I spent some time with some of the ethnic minorities who have been suffering at the hands of the SLORC regime. Under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International (CSI for short), I visited Manerplaw, where I met leaders of the Karen and of the Mon peoples and other members of opposition groups. I also visited many of the Karen people, displaced from their homes by the constant attacks of the SLORC troops on their villages, and now living in camps along the border with Thailand. I also met Karen soldiers inside Burma trying to defend their territory.

CSI is a human rights organisation, working for victims of repression, regardless of their colour, creed or nationality. We tend to focus on people who are often inaccessible to other organisations and to the media.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1180

Many of the people suffering as a result of the SLORC regime's policies come within this sad category of forgotten people. I will therefore give a brief overview of the current situation, with particular reference to the escalation of military offensives by the SLORC regime against ethnic minorities; the suffering caused by violations of human rights by the SLORC; the urgent need for more humanitarian aid; and the implications for the international community in general and the British Government in particular.

In January the SLORC broke its own guarantees of multilateral cease-fires which had been agreed with the ethnic minorities and the democratic opposition. Taking advantage of religious differences within the Karen National Union (KNU), SLORC started a massive offensive against Manerplaw, the headquarters of the main opposition groups. Manerplaw had to be evacuated and some 10,000 to 15,000 refugees had to flee across the border into Thailand. A student camp at Dagwin also had to be evacuated and in the following weeks the SLORC consolidated its hold on surrounding areas, preventing the further evacuation of thousands more villagers who are now trapped behind enemy lines. Many of these are Karen civilians who had previously had to flee from SLORC assaults on their villages and had sought refuge in areas protected by Karen soldiers.

Following the capture of Manerplaw, the SLORC intensified its attacks on Kaw Moo Rah, the Karen army base north of Maesot. Despite numerous attacks by SLORC troops over the past 20 years, and their vastly superior numbers and weaponry, the Karen had always managed to hold on to this base. But this time the SLORC offensive was unprecedented in its ferocity and in its use of weapons, including, allegedly, chemicals and gas.

The loss of Manerplaw, Kaw Moo Rah and surrounding territory has exacerbated the already desperate situation of the opposition and particularly of the Karen people living in these areas. Tens of thousands have had to flee to camps along the border with Thailand; countless others are trapped behind SLORC lines, cut off from major aid agencies and vulnerable to attack. If captured, they face murder, torture and/or enslavement—a fate which has already befallen many thousands of innocent civilians.

When I was in the area four months ago I received first-hand accounts of atrocities perpetrated by the SLORC against villagers and indeed I saw the evidence on their bodies of torture which they had suffered. Therefore there are a number of urgent issues which need to be addressed. First, there is the breaking of the cease-fire by the SLORC troops in their ferocious attacks against the Karen and other groups, and reports of the use of gas and/or chemical weapons. During my visit I received disturbing circumstantial evidence of the possible use of germ warfare by SLORC troops on previous occasions. I have in my possession one of the meteorological devices used in suspicious circumstances which is part of that circumstantial evidence. A few weeks ago one of my colleagues from CSI Australia, Dr. Martin Panter, who has worked for many years with the Karen people, met soldiers who had signs and symptoms consistent with the use of chemical and/or

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1181

gas weapons. They described in detail the type of gas used and he saw third degree burns on exposed skin caused by highly corrosive chemicals.

Secondly, there are increasing reports of attacks by troops against civilians sheltering in camps, including those inside Thailand. These cross-border incursions result in murder and abductions and are causing intense fear amongst the displaced villagers who are already suffering from the tragedy of displacement and shortages of essential supplies, despite the valiant efforts of aid organisations, such as those working with the Burma Border Consortium (BBC). Thai military forces are making efforts to protect the camps, but cannot always defend them effectively against the type of raids launched against them.

For example, on 24th April, there was the following report in The Nation:


    "Burmese soldiers and Karen rebel defectors have raided two ethnic Karen refugee camps in Thailand, abducting several people and threatening to burn the camps down...As many as 300 troops, the majority of them Burmese junta soldiers, swept into Mao Lor Ta and Mae Wee Klu refugee camps, deep in Thailand's Tha Song Vang district, early on Sunday, a KNU official said".

This report is consistent with a letter I have just received, written by Dr. H. M. Singh, the Karen medical officer of health, to my colleague from CSI, Dr. Martin Panter. I quote the following excerpt:


    "There is an emergency situation in one of the Karen refugee camps. The said camp, Ka Maw Lay Klo, is about 77 km north of Maesot. On 25th April, two companies of combined DKBA and SLORC troops entered the camp at about 11.20 p.m. and set fire to it. About 250-300 houses were gutted down and about 1,500 people made homeless. The enemy used RPGs and M79 grenade launchers...The people in the camp are in dire need of help. All their belongings were lost in the fire...Please advise me what you can do at your earliest convenience".

Many of the camps for the displaced have had to be moved two or three times; the people are living in constant fear; and as the camps are relocated in places more inaccessible to SLORC troops they are also more inaccessible to aid organisations and the plight of the people is increasingly desperate. So, what can and should be done in response to this appalling suffering inflicted on its people by a regime whose brutality cannot be denied? I finish with some recommendations and requests.

First, I suggest that the international community cannot be seen to be condoning the policies of a regime which has kept a democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for nearly six years and has imprisoned many others, including politicians, journalists and students. Nor, surely, can the international community ignore the well documented violations of human rights, such as persistent attacks on villages inside Burma and forced relocation of villagers from their own land, the use of forced labour to build another railway, or of civilians as human mine-sweepers or military porters, many of whom die from exhaustion and/or maltreatment. Can the recent escalation of military offensives, including the possible use of gas or chemical weapons, be ignored?

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1182

The response of the international community has been varied. The USA has made strong representations and has warned Burma of the possible downgrading of relations. The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State referred on 8th March to the possibility of,


    "further restrictions in US-Burma relations".

I understand that the British Government have been associated with some expression of concern by the European Union. But the policy in Rangoon of promoting "British Week" in February has caused deep dismay to many who are disturbed by SLORC's brutal policies and has deeply upset many of those suffering as a result of those policies. It appears incongruous and unprincipled to be actively promoting trade with a brutal regime, when other countries are trying to put pressure on that regime to desist from its gross violations of human rights.

Secondly, there is an urgent need to establish protective measures for those suffering from the war, both within Burma and across the border in Thailand. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the United Kingdom is supporting any initiatives by the international community to help to put pressure on SLORC to desist from attacks on camps for the displaced? Thirdly, can Britain increase assistance with humanitarian aid to those now destitute, whose suffering will be exacerbated with the onset of the rainy season? Can my noble friend also give some indication of what might be done to take aid to civilians trapped behind SLORC troops?

Fourthly, given the evidence of continuing widespread atrocities being perpetrated by SLORC against civilians inside Burma, especially in remote areas such as the Irrawaddy delta region, can my noble friend say whether the British Government will urge SLORC to allow access by human rights monitors to visit all parts of the country? Will he also give an assurance that the Government will not be satisfied if that important and principled request is not met?

I conclude by referring, with appreciation, to the UN resolution which was sponsored by Australia, Chile, Hungary, the European Union and the United States on 8th March. It declared that the UNHCR was "gravely concerned" over reports of extremely serious violations taking place in Burma, including torture, political arrest, enforced labour and displacement, abuse of women, lack of freedom of expression and association, and the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities. It also reiterated its call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. Will my noble friend the Minister therefore reassure the House, and all those who care deeply about these matters, that the British Government will desist from offering the regime any further comfort in the form of encouragement of trade by "British Weeks", and that the United Kingdom will join other countries in principled condemnation of SLORC until that regime stops its brutal violations of human rights, seeks a peaceful solution to its conflicts

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1183

with opposition groups and ethnic minorities, and adopts policies based on the fundamental principles of freedom, democracy and justice?

1.30 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, we are all deeply indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her continuous and amazingly energetic endeavours in the defence of human rights all over the world. With that tribute I couple Christian Solidarity International, of which she is such an ornament, and with which I have had some peripheral dealings. I am full of admiration for its work, but particularly for the way the noble Baroness goes into far-flung parts of the world and brings a note of authenticity to our debates on human rights which would otherwise be lacking.

The noble Baroness has never been more convincing than in her description of the appalling sufferings which are endured by the people of Burma under the SLORC regime, particularly the atrocities which have been inflicted on the ethnic minorities in the border area between Burma and Thailand as a result of military operations there by the Tatamadaw, as the army is called. As the noble Baroness pointed out, that has resulted in an increase in the number of refugees in Thailand of 10,000, to a total which is now in the region of 80,000.

There have also been reports this week from various sources of the crossing of the border by Burmese troops and their Karen auxiliaries. That has resulted in the attacks on refugee camps which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned. Further incursions have been reported by the Thai army in which camps have been destroyed, displacing refugees, some of whom had to flee into the forest to protect themselves from the atrocities which were being inflicted on them.

That seems to me to be a violation of international law in that the Burmese troops crossed an international frontier. The UN Charter has been violated, and the Security Council should take action to stop those incursions. This is the second case which has occurred in recent months of a state marching into the territory of its neighbour, harassing and kidnapping refugees and killing civilians with impunity. I suggest that if the international community had taken a firmer line against Turkey when she illegally invaded Iraqi Kurdistan that might have deterred the Tatamadaw from its present adventures.

What protection are the Thai forces giving the refugees against those attacks? Are the Thai authorities allowing the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations freedom of access into the border region, as the noble Baroness said, in order to help the victims? It was reported that the Thai Third Army region commander, General Surachet Dechatiwong, has been investigating the situation, that he met his Burmese opposite number, General Khet Sein, on 25th April and that the Burmese general said that he was unable to control the activities of the Karen auxiliaries. However, the so-called Democratic Karen Buddhist Army is

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1184

financed and armed by the Tatamadaw and there are regular meetings between them. Therefore, I do not think that they can get away with that excuse.

Burmese forces also launched an offensive against the Shan leader Khun Sa's positions at Loi Hpaleng on 11th March. Three days later they attacked Huanamsai, north of Pangkawtai. Heavy fighting has continued around Burmese positions at Tachilek. Unfortunately, the SLORC offensive has been given support by the US State Department, which sees Khun Sa as a drug baron. If we allow the Burmese armed forces to continue attacking ethnic minorities in this way, there is no chance of a peaceful political solution which, as the noble Baroness said, was on the cards until very recently.

Whatever the outcome of those military operations, as Prime Minister Sein Win of the NCGUB said at the Copenhagen Summit last month, the democracy movement in Burma never intended to restore democracy through armed struggle. The KNU provided the democracy movement with a base from which to operate inside the country, and there are still areas that are not under SLORC control, but the NCGUB now operates mainly from Washington and would continue to function even if SLORC, with its 2 billion dollars worth of arms purchased from China at the expense of its own people, managed to wipe out the armed opposition within the country completely.

Sein Win believes that the SLORC's change of tactics from a policy of seeking reconciliation with each of the armed opposition groups to an attempt to secure outright military victory over the KNU, the most powerful of them, arises from the perceived weakening of the international community's position on human rights during 1994. From being a virtual pariah, Rangoon became an avidly sought partner in various forms of international dialogue, including the European Union's "Critical Dialogue". Do the Government see any need for a reappraisal of that approach in the light of Rangoon's military operations and the human rights abuses associated with them?

It could also be that SLORC always intended to follow the two policies simultaneously, on the one hand making deals through negotiation with some of the minorities, or parts of the minorities, and dealing with the more intransigent groups by military force. It would not have acquired such a huge arsenal from China for external defence purposes, because there is no conceivable outside threat to Burma's territorial integrity. I believe that there was a long-term plan to use those weapons against the minorities, and the Chinese are accomplices in SLORC's policy of dealing with political problems by military force.

What action will the European Union and the US take to criticise China's arms sales policies, which undermine the international community's attempts to scale down the diversion of resources away from peaceful development in the third world? Will the Government now suggest to our EU partners that a new approach should be made to China to halt the sale of weapons which are partly being used against the civilian population of Burma?

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1185

The main purpose of my intervention in the debate is to draw attention to the horrendous use of forced labour by SLORC and to ask what the Government are doing about it. The United Nations General Assembly, in its most recent resolution on Burma in December 1994, urged:


    "the Government of Myanmar to fulfil its obligations as a state party to the Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29) and to the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention 1984 (No. 87) of the International Labour Organisation".

That is a recurring theme of almost every report about human rights violations under SLORC. The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, Mr. Yozo Yokota, says in his latest report of 12th January 1995 that workers in Myanmar do not enjoy basic labour rights, including in particular freedom of association and the right to organise. He relates that he has received


    "many complaints from several reliable sources that men, women and children from the age of 14 are allegedly used for forced labour for the construction of railways, roads and bridges".

The military use forced labour to carry heavy loads of ammunition, food and other supplies in areas which are inaccessible by vehicle.

The special rapporteur notes that the ILO convention committee established to consider Burma's violations of the Forced Labour Convention concluded that the exaction of forced labour and services, in particular porterage services, is contrary to the convention, which was ratified by Burma in 1955.

These reports from UN agencies are fully supported by the information gathered by NGOs. Human Rights Watch/Asia, in a paper on abuses linked to the fall of Manerplaw described the experiences of civilians who were forced to carry supplies for the Burmese military in the battle of Naw Hta, south of Manerplaw. They mentioned one elderly man who was press-ganged while on his way to hospital for treatment. He pleaded with the soldiers to let him go but they refused. They piled him into a truck where, he having been all day in conditions of enormous overcrowding in the back of the truck, at the truck's destination they found that he had died on the journey.

All the porters were beaten regularly with fists and rifle butts. Some had their feet blown off by mines and received no medical attention. Others were pushed over the edge of cliffs when they could no longer carry the heavy loads imposed on them—estimated at between 90 and 126 kilograms. They were given almost no food, and had to sleep on the bare ground in the freezing temperatures of December.

Apart from the porters, Human Rights Watch/Asia describes forced labour on other military projects such as road building, construction of latrines, cooking and cutting bamboo. These workers fared a little better in that for the most part they were not physically abused. But, like the porters, they still received no pay and had to supply their own food, cooking utensils and shelter.

Anti-Slavery International also reports on forced labour in some detail. It mentions in particular the work on roads and other construction projects which are believed to be related to gas pipeline projects from the Andaman Sea, where Total, Unocal, Texaco, Nippon Oil and Premier, which is a United Kingdom company, are

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1186

operating. One way in which people in the West can demonstrate their feelings about SLORC is to boycott the products of companies doing business with the dictatorship. There has been a good example recently. Berkeley City Council in California decided that it would not buy goods produced by any of those companies, including the oil companies I mentioned—an initiative which follows its similar action a few years ago against apartheid in South Africa.

Women are not exempted from the forced labour conscriptions, a point I hope our representatives will underline at the Beijing women's conference in September. Anti-Slavery International reports that even pregnant women and mothers with children have been press-ganged by the military, and soldiers are particularly brutal towards women belonging to the ethnic minorities. Women are often the main victims because the men flee when the military approach, expecting to be conscripted into the army. ASI says that the worst human rights abuses against women, including beatings, rape and murder, have been perpetrated when they are doing forced labour.

Another horrendous form of women's forced labour is the kidnapping of women from Burma, and in particular women belonging to ethnic minorities, to become prostitutes in the brothels of Thailand. ASI says that between 40,000 and 100,000 women are engaged in that vile trade at any one time. Any women who try to escape from that sexual slavery are killed if they are caught. If they succeed in returning to Burma, they will also be killed if they are found to be HIV positive. But according to the World Health Organisation, as many as 400,000 people in Burma are now HIV positive.

In the past week, Anti-Slavery International has been reporting at the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery on the evidence that it has collected. The question is this: Where do we go from here, as the noble Baroness asked, when the practices in question have been condemned many times already without making the slightest impression on the junta?

First, what can be done in the working group itself? The problem with all UN human rights operations in Geneva is that it is almost impossible to obtain their reports. I suggest to the Government that they disseminate the conclusions of the working group to Parliament, trade unions and political parties, and that the UNDP, which already publishes much useful material from the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretary General's office, should have this material available on its Internet Gopher site so that it is readily accessible by those who wish to learn about human rights violations. There is also a clear need to consider what additional procedures can be developed for use when the practices have been "round the loop" several times, as has the question of Burmese forced labour, without any change in the conduct of the state. Every year for the past four or five years, those matters have been examined in the working group which reports to the sub-commission in August, and it in turn reports to the full Commission the following February. Then the process begins all over again the next April. There has

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1187

to be a special track for what I might call recidivist states like Burma which leads to the imposition of some kind of penalties.

Secondly, will the Government work closely with our partners in the European Union and others, including the Burmese Government, to organise a direct contact mission by the ILO? That can only be done if the Burmese Government agree to it, but since they have stopped denying the practice of forced labour, and now justify the policy, presumably they would be glad to have their arguments examined methodically by the ILO.

It seems to me profoundly unsatisfactory that the ILO can apparently send a mission with the consent of the accused state only; and I suggest that Britain asks the governing body of the ILO to consider whether we cannot have a compulsory mechanism, such as exists in the OSCE, however rarely it may be used. If a state is violating human rights, and refuses to comply with the recommendation of the ILO, at present the international community has no mechanism to deploy in the last resort.

Thirdly—this is a point the noble Baroness mentioned—one of the main uses being made of the forced labour is for the restoration of Burma's ancient sites and associated facilities in preparation for the 1996 Year of Tourism. Will the Government discourage the British tourist industry from helping to achieve that aim? In particular, will they consider what the State Department says about the conscription of the whole population of Mandalay to work on the restoration of the palaces there which are now to be a source of attraction in order for the Myanmar regime to bring tourists from overseas into the country? I agree with the noble Baroness about the British week. It was unfortunate that that should have taken place at the residence of the British Ambassador.

The SLORC regime has defied world opinion for many years. Not only has it got away with it, but states are now eagerly competing for its business. One can be under no illusion that what is said today is likely to have much effect on that process, but neither can the Government imagine that their failure to act vigorously against the military regime will pass unnoticed. I know that it will be said, as Ministers have stated in correspondence over the years, that our direct influence in Burma is small notwithstanding the historical ties between our countries. But we could play a bigger role in the EU, the ILO and the UN in seeking to ensure that SLORC's gross and persistent human rights violations, and the use of forced labour in particular, incur concrete and substantial penalties which might cause it to mend its ways.

1.48 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing this quite desperate situation before the House. Her dedication is indeed legendary. I have been moved by all remarks to date. A clear message is being sent to the authorities in Myanmar that we in the United Kingdom do not tolerate behaviour of this nature.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1188

My Lords, there is only one question. What will be the most effective policy to ensure a reversal in human rights abuses, and a return to the democratic process? For her part, Britain has severed defence links, suspended official non-humanitarian aid, and complies with a general European arms embargo.

But what has been achieved? A joint declaration following the 11th ASEAN-European Union ministerial meeting in Germany last September stated that the Ministers noted that there had been some positive developments in Myanmar. On the surface there were initial hopes that the need for reconciliation in dialogue had finally been accepted by the ruling generals of the SLORC government. Political prisoners were released, but there have been no positive moves since. By the end of October it was recognised generally that any possibility of further sustained improvements was not going to be forthcoming. So who is in the sphere of influence to effect change? I regret that it is not, I believe, the European Union. Britain has done more than most and has led the way on European action, pursuing a policy of critical dialogue, but to little avail. Late last year, the United States offered the regime two visions of a future relationship: increased co-operation linked to positive developments by the regime on issues of importance to the international community; or heightened isolation if progress is not forthcoming.

I would caution on the latter as possibly leading down the path of confrontation. The key to reform, in my opinion, lies in maintaining pressure, which the West is implementing, to make good Myanmar's programme of reforms, combined with trade and inward investment to be linked with conditions for reform from the ASEAN countries, Japan and China, if she could be encouraged so to do.

Her Majesty's Government should exert their influence with the ASEAN countries, and particularly Japan, to link further investment to improvements. The communiqué from the ministerial meeting in Germany supports that by emphasising that:


    "they expressed the hope that Asean's policy of constructive engagement, and the European Union's willingness to engage in a critical dialogue will eventually contribute to achieving more sustainable improvements in all fields".

Indeed, a reversal of their human rights record and stepping down the road of democratic process would be in the interest of those who are investing in that country. Stability, as always, is the key to sustained growth.

Myanmar's "open door" policy has introduced a liberal foreign investment law which enables the country's long-closed economy to be integrated with the world economy, particularly with Asia's. Two billion US dollars has been attracted within a six-year period.

Economic reforms have contributed to the country's growth and recovery, but are not complete. More are needed if the present momentum of strong growth is to be sustained. Further inward investment will certainly then be forthcoming. There are some encouraging signs. After three decades of self-imposed exile, Myanmar is working itself out of isolation, and so to the opportunity of meaningful dialogue or "constructive engagement", which our ASEAN friends condone.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1189

Let there be no doubt as to key objectives as matters of the highest priority. First, halt all offensive military operations and allow humanitarian assistance to the victims of military operations. Secondly, release all those detained for the peaceful expression of their political views. Thirdly, remove all restrictions on freedom of movement. Fourthly, begin a process of substantive political dialogue. Fifthly, bring into Burmese law full conformity with international human rights standards. Myanmar could then look forward to an economy equal to that of her neighbours, and possible inclusion as an ASEAN member.

I end on a matter which gives me cause for concern and, indeed, distress. It has been brought to my attention that Sung Chee's husband, who resides in Oxford, has been refused a visa to visit her by the authorities in Rangoon. A visa has been granted in the past and the refusal seems both vindictive and retrogade. I ask the Minister to do what he can in the matter.

1.54 p.m.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery: My Lords, I have reason personally to be grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for tabling her Unstarred Question this afternoon. She and I speak for people who have been my friends in the past. I regard them now with anxiety, affection and admiration. Therefore, I wish to speak about them as they were in the past and as I know them to be rather than about the situation which has been described by those who have already spoken. As I confess that I am biased in their favour, perhaps I may speak about them in the words of someone else. I recommend the book called Grandfather Longlegs to anyone who has not read it. It is about the great hero, Major Seagrim of the Burma Rifles who fought with and for, and eventually laid down his life for the Karens in the Second World War.

I wish to read a short passage about the Karens as people from the book by Ian Morrison:


    "They are an extraordinarily good people. The word may be thought an odd and old-fashioned one to use, but it is the only one that describes the essential quality of the Karens, their honesty and truthfulness and, in its best sense, simplicity. The hill Karens, who have not been contaminated by contact with other races, are incapable of guile or deceit. They are peaceful and law-abiding folk, asking only to be treated fairly. Before the war there was practically no crime among them. After the harvest was gathered rice was stacked on the hill-sides with no guard over it. In the spring of 1946, when dacoity and lawlessness was rife all over Burmese Burma, the hills were absolutely quiet and safe".

My second quotation is from the same book, but is a quotation from a broadcast made after the war by a British officer who had served in Burma. He concluded his talk by saying:


    "It takes two to make a quarrel, and it takes two to make a loyalty. And this loyalty of the Karens to the British cannot be surpassed, even between Englishmen born and bred in England. On the one side, it is due to men like Seagrim; on the other, to the character of the Karen people who have never been seduced, by promises, by money or by threats, from what they hold to be right".

That is a considerable tribute to the Karen people. They are one of several racial groups living in Burma which is not an ethnically united country. They live more or less in the hills, but also partly in the plains,

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1190

round the southernmost part of Burma, level with Rangoon and the valleys of the Irrawaddy and the Salween rivers.

When the Japanese attacked in 1942, we retreated from the south of Burma right through Moulmein, up to Mandalay. It was really a later version of "The Road to Mandalay"—and a disagreeable one. We went through the Karen country. The Army then had cause to be grateful to the Karens because although it was in retreat and the Japanese were pressing on our heels, the people succoured, helped, protected and not infrequently fought for the army that was passing through their country. That help was complete and was given regardless of the Karens' personal safety. I am talking now about the civilian population, not the soldiers, but of course, the soldiers were there, including a number of Karens.

I was then serving as company commander in a battalion of the Burma Rifles which, like other battalions, contained three classes of people. For some reason, they were known as "classes" and they were the Chins, the Kachins and the Karens. We had a company of Chins and one of Kachins, and two companies of Karens. They were the warlike soldiers in the Burma Rifles. When the retreat was completed, many of them were disbanded from the Army and allowed to return home. In some cases they were given arms, ammunition and money. But most of them stayed with the Army and went into India, even though their own country was now in the hands of the enemy. They served again later (when we went back into Burma) with the so-called Special Force, the Chindits, commanded and led by General Wingate. The general himself said that they were the finest body of soldiers he had led. That is a remarkable tribute from such a man.

Those of the Burma Rifles who still remained had been reorganised for the second Chindit operation into reconnaissance platoons—partly British, partly Burma Rifles and largely Karen. One of those platoons was attached to every column that formed a part of that force. At the time I was first a column, and then a brigade, intelligence officer. I add my tribute to those invaluable soldiers, not only for their particular form of fighting, to which I shall return in a moment, but for their extreme usefulness in conveying information. They ought to have been used in that way before. They began by being organised —in so far as you can say seriously that anything was organised militarily in Burma before the war—as a standard infantry regiment. Their particular genius in wartime stemmed from the expertise that is natural to people who live in the jungle. They were spies, information carriers and scouts. They were enormously brave and absolutely invaluable.

In the second operation, they went into Burma about 800 strong, and came out stronger than when they went in. That is unusual, to say the least. That was because they had collected people of their own race inside the country and persuaded them to return to the Army or to join it for the first time. They had a great recruiting effect, which is again unusual in the middle of a war. Of course, they no longer exist as soldiers. Independence came, and that was the end of that.

As I remarked before, I do not wish to say anything in any detail about the present situation. But those people have served us in the past, and would no doubt do so again

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1191

if they had the chance. When independence came, the Karen people stated officially and as a body that they wished not to achieve independence with the rest of Burma, but to become an autonomous state under British command. That is a measure of loyalty from simple people. This is a point that has not yet been made. They are extremely simple people. They are not very clever, but they are extremely loyal and extremely sensible; and, as I say, they are devoted to us. Can we not do something for them now?

I have heard it said that nothing can be done. Yet we have heard two noble Lords and one noble Baroness say that things can and must be done. I am convinced that they must be done —no matter what the cost might be. I know that one cannot quite say that, but it is not reasonable to say that nothing can be done. That is not a fit statement for anybody in the British Parliament to make.

I am personally grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate. I am grateful on behalf of the Karens. I feel slightly entitled to say that. I hope that, somehow or other, a report of this debate and the remarks particularly of my noble friend Lady Cox will find their way through the pages of Hansard, or by some form of pigeon post, to the Karen country, so that those gallant and formerly devoted people may derive some comfort and benefit from what has been said.

2.5 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, like others, I not only welcome the remarks made today by the noble Baroness in initiating this debate, but pay tribute to her care in terms of international concern for violations of human rights. It is well-known in this House. She has done a service to the people of Burma in raising these issues in the way that she did today. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, paid the noble Baroness an appropriate tribute in his opening remarks. It is one that I wholly endorse.

The debate has been interesting. I should like to touch on the last observations made by the noble Earl. It is absurd for anybody to suggest that this country has no voice in affairs affecting human rights in countries that are far away. These matters are indivisible; they are questions of human rights and freedom. It is always appropriate for this country to allow its voice to be heard in championing the causes of those who are downtrodden, victimised and often seemingly helpless.

This debate has concentrated on a powerful indictment of the disregard for and violation of human rights that is happening in Burma today. It is a long and disheartening catalogue of suppression of those rights. It is an indictment that has been forcefully drawn and documented by Amnesty International and other international organisations and has been reiterated and supplemented in today's debate. Unfortunately, those calls for international action have elicited no proper response, in my belief, from the Burmese Government. I do not want to go in detail into a large number of the issues that have been raised today, because it does not add to the pertinence of the observations which have been made by others. But the arrest and imprisonment, often without any

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1192

or any fair trial, of hundreds of political activists who are opposed to the military regime is something about which the international community must be concerned.

It is worth remembering the circumstances in which all this has arisen in more recent times. The present government—the State Law and Order Restoration Council—took over from an even more savage military regime in 1988. It went on to hold free elections—reasonably free elections at all events. There was a landslide victory for the Opposition in 1990 and the State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to hand over power. It went on violently to suppress a nationwide pro-democracy movement, having, when they took office in 1988, done something to promote that unworthy cause even then.

Other persistent human rights' violations have continued over many parts of the country. We heard today about the arbitrary seizure of civilians to serve as military porters, or labourers—forced labour. That was very well rehearsed in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, earlier. We heard too, notably from the noble Baroness who opened the debate, about the attacks on the ethnic minorities. Forced labour is terrible in itself, but when it is accompanied by savage beatings and other forms of appalling treatment and torture, it becomes infinitely worse. Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced by the Burmese army to carry supplies during counter-insurgency operations against Opposition armed groups.

I want to say here and now that there is evidence—again from Amnesty International—that some of the Opposition armed groups have behaved in a fairly uncivilised way too. It is fair to represent both sides of the issue. But we are dealing with the operation of a government which ought to set a rather better example, although it is often difficult to display all those elements of democratic rights that we would expect. It is certainly not an easy situation. But there is no way in which we can condone the torture and killing which is rife on the part of the armed military in Burma.

In fact, every part of Burmese society has been subjected to that barbaric treatment: Buddhist clerics, community leaders, university and high school teachers, students, doctors, writers, civil servants, lawyers, workers' leaders and so on. There is widespread expression of barbaric treatment.

Moreover, one must not forget, as has been said in this House, that one of the most outstanding Nobel Peace Prize winners of all time, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest since 1989. Many other leaders remain imprisoned, or, if they are not imprisoned and have been released in more recent times, have been subjected to great surveillance by the government's intelligence agents.

Further arrests are taking place, although there was an abatement for some time. Certainly the scale of the violence seems in some way to have been reduced. I cannot help thinking that that is because people raised their voices in the international community and have taken action, which is more important even than raising voices, to ensure that pressure is maintained against the Burmese Government.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1193

I turn now to the attitude of our own Government, which has been substantially criticised by one of their own supporters; namely the noble Baroness. She is a supporter of the Government and cares to maintain them. That does not seem to me to be a very worthy aim in this day and age, but that is what she wants to do. Therefore, her criticisms must not be taken lightly by the Minister when he comes to reply.

The question with which I want to deal now is: what should be our attitude in relation to trade with Burma? The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said in effect that he wanted trade with Burma to persist or be encouraged but that it should be combined with demands for reform, particularly on the part of Japan, China and other ASEAN countries. I am not convinced that those countries are listening very carefully to any such preconditions for trade. But that is an important point. It is in marked contrast to a speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, on 10th March when she spoke at the United Nations social summit, at least as reported in The Times of 11th March. At that time she said,


    "cutting off markets is not an effective way to improve human rights records",

implicitly suggesting that trade with Burma—and others, but we are talking today about Burma—should be accommodated and encouraged, but with none of the preconditions about which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, spoke.

It would be an untenable situation if that argument were to represent the endorsement of a fairly new attitude by Britain in this connection. What is more, it was shown to be a barren argument in relation to South Africa. I cannot believe for one moment that any Minister today would stand up in this House or in another place and say, as was said during the Thatcher Government, that trade with South Africa should be encouraged because it was helping to release new forces in that country. That is the very reverse of an accurate reflection of what was happening, as displayed notably by the Americans. It is unlikely in the extreme, unless one had preconditions such as those described by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that to trade with Burma at this time could do more than be seen by the Burma authorities as condoning what is happening. Perhaps "condone" is the wrong word. It would display an indifference about the savage destruction of human rights that continues.

The demands that have been made by Amnesty International, which I shall briefly rehearse, are those which this Government ought to be demanding in the councils of the world and for which they should be seeking support. They are: first, the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience; secondly, that all prisoners should receive proper medical attention and that international standards of decent treatment should prevail; thirdly, that there should be made public a list of all political prisoners released since April 1992 when Declaration 11/92 came into effect.

The fourth demand by Amnesty International is that all death sentences should be commuted to terms of imprisonment; the fifth is that all civilians subjected to forced portering and unpaid labour should be released; the sixth is that the forced relocation of villagers in circumstances where people are compelled to remain in

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1194

another area because of their ethnic origins, should be ended; and, finally—to reiterate something said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his comments—that international human rights organisations (for example, UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross and representatives of the Interparliamentary Union) should be allowed into Burma and permitted free access to prisons and other places of detention and to ethnic minority areas.

Those demands are perfectly reasonable. They should be the policy of the Government and I hope that we shall hear from the Minister along those lines and not along the lines suggested by the noble Baroness—rather uncharacteristically, if I may say so.

2.19 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for initiating this debate and to noble Lords for the many useful points which they made. The situation in Burma remains one of concern to the Government. We and our European Union partners have always made our views plain, most recently in the European Union statement on 13th March about the latest offensive against the Karen, which states inter alia that:


    "The European Union wishes to express its grave anxiety at the continuation of military operations against the last pockets of resistance of the KNU on the Burmese/Thai border, in total opposition to the policy of national reconciliation preached by the Burmese Government. Its wishes to reiterate in this connection its hope that a peaceful solution will be found quickly to the problem of the ethnic minorities".

We suspended non-humanitarian aid in 1988, imposed an arms embargo in 1991 and severed all remaining defence links in 1992. We have consistently applied pressure on the ruling military regime—the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—both bilaterally and in international fora, to make progress towards national reconciliation and democratic reform.

Our policy, and that of our European partners, is one of "critical dialogue" with the SLORC. We do not believe that total isolation of the regime will assist the Burmese people. It is important that the regime understands that Burma cannot hope to regain its place in the international community unless it implements fundamental democratic and economic reforms and improves its human rights record.

"Critical dialogue" aims to influence the SLORC to implement liberalisation and political change. It is important that SLORC is made aware that normal relations with the European Union depend on progress in key areas. That is an essential pre-condition.

The ultimate goal of the policy we share with our European partners is to influence the SLORC to implement liberalisation and political change to achieve a peaceful, stable and democratic Burma led by a government freely elected by Burmese peoples which respects human rights. The current process is far from democratic and we continue to stress the need for real democratic reform. We fear that the national convention preparing the guidelines for a new constitution is not progressing towards this ideal. The convention does not reflect the outcome of the 1990 free elections; there is a pre-scripted agenda; and pro-democracy groups are given

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1195

little opportunity to express their views. We have urged, and will continue to urge, the SLORC to hold open and productive discussions with all representatives of the pro-democracy groups, including the ethnic groups, on the formulation of a new constitution.

We believe that true national reconciliation will only result from the ethnic groups, among whom are the Karen but it is not the only one, and political parties being allowed to participate fully in the political process. We continue to urge the SLORC to enter into dialogue with these groups and we co-sponsored a recent resolution at the United Nations General Assembly which made specific reference to the need for SLORC to enter into a dialogue with ethnic groups. United Kingdom officials maintain informal contact with representatives of pro-democracy groups in exile. The establishment of a peaceful and prosperous Burma depends on the input of all ethnic groups.

We remain concerned at the human rights situation in Burma. In particular, we condemn the use of forced labour and military portering of the kind described by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We have consistently pressed on all appropriate occasions for international condemnation of the use of forced labour and portering. We also deplore the high level of internal displacement within Burma itself and the lack of provision for the most basic human needs. Our most recent action has been to co-sponsor toughly worded UN resolutions both at the United Nations General Assembly in December and at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

We have always maintained the importance of keeping UN involvement in Burma. Not only do we press for strong resolutions in the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights but we fully support the work of the special rapporteur, Professor Yokota, and the Secretary-General's "good offices" missions. We welcome further visits by the Secretary-General's envoys and hope for a greater degree of co-operation from SLORC.

We see United Nations action as one of the most effective ways to draw Burma to the attention of the international community. We therefore welcome the report of the special rapporteur on human rights for Burma. We fully support his conclusions about continued human rights violations in the country and regret the limited co-operation he received from the SLORC and the denial of access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders. We are concerned about the intimidation of others who wish to contact him. We continue to urge the SLORC to permit the special rapporteur further visits to produce an accurate assessment of the situation in Burma and urge them further to co-operate with the UN Secretary General's visiting envoys.

We shall consider carefully the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the involvement of the ILO in Burma. But it is important to remember that our policy on Burma is part of a European Union policy.

I understand the anxiety of all noble Lords about that remarkable lady and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her continued detention without charge is indefensible and in flagrant contradiction of all principles of justice. We have repeatedly called for her early and unconditional

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1196

release and have issued statements to that effect. We are particularly disappointed that SLORC has extended Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's detention until 11th July, and that it continues to hold many other political prisoners. We are particularly concerned that the regime has not yet acceded to International Red Cross requests for rights of access to Burmese prisons. We do, however, welcome the recent release of senior pro-democracy figures and encourage SLORC to resume meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and to develop a serious and lasting dialogue.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked about the refusal of a visa from the Burmese Government for Dr. Michael Aris. I understand that the United Nations Secretary-General has urged the Burmese authorities to issue a visa for Dr. Aris to visit his wife in Burma. We support the Secretary-General's action and hope that the problem will be resolved soon.

I share the concern of your Lordships as regards the safety of the Karen people who were so movingly described by my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery. We remember with gratitude the support that they gave us during the Second World War, resisting the Japanese invader, and we have the deepest sympathy for their present plight. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House hope that this debate may, to some extent at least, help to improve the circumstances in which they find themselves.

With our European partners, we made a démarche to the SLORC in Rangoon on 5th February to protest against its attacks on the Karen. We reinforced that action by calling in the Burmese ambassador here in London two days later to underline our message. The European Union also issued a public statement on 13th March expressing our concern at the recent offensive and reiterating the hope that a peaceful solution would be found to the problem of Burma's ethnic groups. We deplore the actions taken by the SLORC and will continue to monitor events closely.

As was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the area of most immediate concern is the safety of the Karen refugees who have fled to Thailand. Obviously we are concerned for their safety and have encouraged the Thai Government to ensure that the refugees are treated humanely and will not be returned to Burma until it is safe to do so. Recent reports of raids on camps several miles across the Thai border have caused us disquiet which fuelled our concern. We are monitoring the situation carefully with the help of NGOs.

We encourage the Thai Government to ensure that the Karen refugees are treated humanely and the Thai Government have recently expressed their concern about the recent incursions by the Burmese Army and the Democratic Karen Bhuddist Army into Thailand. We shall monitor the situation closely and will await a further response from the Thai Government.

We are aware that there are Thai forces along the Burmese border but we are not aware of the level of protection which they can offer. But the Thai Government have expressed their commitment to offering protection to the refugees and we shall continue to encourage them to offer such humanitarian assistance.

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1197

I understand the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that chemical and biological weapons have been used against the Karen. The United Kingdom deplores any use of bacteriological and chemical weapons. Burma is an original Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention signatory, but has never ratified the convention. We would naturally condemn activities in any breach of the spirit or letter of the convention.

The Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down has analysed samples of equipment allegedly used to transport bacteria against the Karen, but found no conclusive evidence. The UK Government are willing to consider and analyse carefully any new evidence of their use in Burma or elsewhere. If evidence is presented to the UN, a United Nations inspection team may be asked to investigate.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis raised the matter of trade. In the past year Britain's trade with Burma amounted to only £13 million. This gives a necessary perspective on our activities. We cannot and should not prevent British companies from exploring opportunities. There is no European Union trade embargo and other nations are in no way restricting their trade. It would be inappropriate to offer official financial assistance to companies or to list Burma as a priority market under the DTI's export initiative. We must not forget that trade access and the consequent maintenance of a western presence may provide leverage over the SLORC.

The noble Baroness raised the question of the British Week. This was a small-scale affair funded mostly by the private sector. It aimed to give British firms a chance to assess for themselves any opportunities that there might be in Burma. We took the opportunity afforded by that occasion to reiterate our concerns. This was an opportunity to promote Britain in its entirety, with important cultural and information elements. The commercial participants received no official support, and HMG contributed only a small amount to cover administration. We have no plans for further events. Such a cautious policy on commercial activity complements the strong political message that we continue to send to the military regime. When advising United Kingdom business visitors and potential tourists to Burma we ensure that they understand our view of the regime, our concerns about human rights and the lack of democratic freedoms.

Some noble Lords have raised the possibility of further action. I appreciate the concern for the Burmese people that lies behind such a call. We share that concern and have considered how best to help them, but we do not believe that sanctions will be effective without international support, which we do not judge to be forthcoming. Furthermore, while we do not wish to offer any succour to the regime, we do not believe that to isolate it entirely will necessarily benefit the Burmese people.

We remain worried by the military activities of the SLORC. Although we have no reliable information on arms purchases, we are concerned by recent reports of continued expansion of the armed forces and rising military expenditure. We have raised our concerns about Burma's arms purchases with Burma's neighbours on a number of occasions, but have no reliable information

28 Apr 1995 : Column 1198

about the major suppliers of arms. The United Kingdom has given full support to the European Union's arms embargo of 1991. We severed all remaining defence links in 1992 and have encouraged like-minded countries to do the same.

The noble Baroness raised the question of aid to Burma. We maintain a distinction between developmental aid—which I am sure your Lordships agree is inappropriate in the case of Burma—and humanitarian aid which helps the people rather than the regime. Together with our European partners, we suspended all EU and bilateral non-humanitarian official aid in 1988, and we will not consider resuming such aid programmes until we are satisfied that real changes have been made, including a significant improvement in respect for human rights.

I can assure your Lordships that not only do we support existing UN endeavours in Burma, but actively initiate projects and resolutions. We support the work of the UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and UNDCP. We have taken a major role in securing UNDP agreement to redirect programmes towards grass roots activities, which give no assistance to the military regime but provide real help to the people of Burma. The withdrawal of UN projects will only hurt the ordinary Burmese people who most need our help.

Thus far, I have focused my remarks on the position of Burma and our own country and the European Union, but we must not overlook Burma's neighbours and the part they may play. The ASEAN countries share the same objective: to see a democratic and prosperous Burma that is able to play a full part in international affairs. Although there is a difference in emphasis between us, we believe that dialogue with Burma's neighbours is one of the most effective ways to influence the SLORC. We take every opportunity to urge ASEAN members to use their influence with the SLORC to achieve the reforms that we all wish to see, because Burma wants to have closer links with them.

The interest shown by the House in the plight of Burma, and in particular the Karen people, reflects our genuine wish to see democracy, freedom and full respect for human rights restored in that country. I have described in some detail a number of areas that are of concern to the Government and are very properly causing anxiety to your Lordships. I believe that not merely are the Government's actions a sign of our concern but that they represent the most realistic way in which pressure can be exerted for the re-establishment of these rights in that tortured country. For their part, the Government will continue to work closely with European Union colleagues and other like-minded states to help bring about the reforms that we all wish to see.

Building Societies (Joint Account Holders) Bill

Returned from the Commons with the amendments agreed to.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before three o'clock.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page