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House of Lords

Wednesday, 8th April 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Royal Assent

Employment Rights (Dispute Resolution) Act, Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, Criminal Procedure (Intermediate Diets) (Scotland) Act, Tyne Tunnels Act.

Burma: Human Rights

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take further measures in response to continuing reports of violations of human rights against, and widespread suffering among, the Karen, the Karenni and other ethnic minorities in Burma.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Government are appalled by the plight of Burma's ethnic minorities. We are introducing a resolution on Burma at the UN Commission on Human Rights later this month, which will highlight this important issue. We took immediate action to condemn the recent attacks on Karen refugees in camps in Thailand and called on the Thai authorities to ensure adequate protection for refugees. The root problem remains the repressive military regime in Burma. We are using our EU presidency to secure renewal of EU punitive measures against the regime.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that robust reply, which I am sure will give comfort to many of those suffering at the hands of the brutal SPDC regime. Is she aware that only last week, while I was visiting the Karen and the Karenni people, I found evidence of yet further attacks on those living in camps on the Thai border since those mentioned in the excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on 25th March? Those people are living in constant terror of renewed attacks, destruction of homes, loss of life and enforced repatriation. Will the Government request the Thai Government specifically to provide adequate protection for people living in those camps so that they will not suffer further death and destruction of their homes, to help with the reconstruction of homes before the onset of the rainy season, and to ensure that they are not subjected to enforced repatriation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in our appreciation of the work that the noble Baroness

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does in relation to the minority groups whose interests she so assiduously and courageously pursues. She asked what the British Government's actions have been over these matters. The British ambassador in Bangkok has received assurances from the commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army and the head of the national security council that there will be no forced repatriation of refugees. Of course we will continue to monitor that closely. I am sure that noble Lords will also be interested to learn that Ministers visiting Bangkok have re-emphasised our concerns. Notably, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn recently raised that issue with the Thai Interior Minister and the Deputy Foreign Minister, and received assurances from them about ensuring that the camps containing refugees are moved further away from the border. The British Ambassador has visited the camps. We remain in close contact with the Thai authorities, the UN High Commission on Human Rights, local NGOs, and others, about the refugee situation which, I can assure the noble Baroness, we shall continue to monitor.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I strongly support the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and I welcome the Minister's comments. Perhaps I may remind her that during the debate on 25th March she told the House that it would be only natural for the plight of the Karen and the continued violations of human rights in Burma to be raised at the ASEM meeting taking place in London last week. Will she tell the House what obstacles were placed in the way of her Majesty's Government to prevent those questions being raised at that meeting? What further action is being taken by Her Majesty's Government to ensure that those who are responsible for those atrocities are brought before an international court charged with abuses of human rights?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I said in the debate to which the noble Lord referred, there was no fixed agenda for the political dialogue section of the ASEM 2 meeting. Leaders and Foreign Ministers decided the issues which were to be discussed at the time of the meeting. I can assure the noble Lord that Burma was discussed. The Foreign Secretary encouraged ASEAN members to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese to improve the political and human rights situation. We shall continue so to do.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have a particular duty to the Karen because they fought by our side with Force 136 during the war? Following that, I wished also to say what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said much better, about the need to pursue ASEAN a bit more. But we are also members of the Security Council. Why cannot we ensure that the UN representatives can see and report as much as my noble friend and the noble Lord have been able to do? There seems to be a curious lack of public speaking by the UN about this. Lastly, since we are committed, I believe, to the destruction of landmines--they proliferate on both sides of the border

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of Thailand and Burma--could not we at least start by doing that? That would give us access and be a practical thing to do. I am tired of nothing practical being done.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I acknowledged, when we discussed this matter in the debate a few weeks ago in which the noble Baroness took part, that we have particular responsibilities because of the historical relationship. For that reason, we have been pursuing those issues as part of the actions under the EU presidency. The noble Baroness suggested positive measures that we could take. The UK contribution to humanitarian assistance for the refugees on the Thai border, through the Burma Border Consortium, has been increased substantially in the past year to £267,000. We continue to press for access for UN observers in all places where there are human rights abuses or alleged human rights abuses. I can assure the noble Baroness that we will so continue to do.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is difficult to see how human rights can be restored to Burma until the present military regime has been phased out and there is a properly elected government under the prime ministership of Aung San Suu Kyi?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree that the present military regime, which has recently changed its name, but, alas, not its nature, must be replaced and that there should be restoration of a democratically elected government in Burma. The United Kingdom Government maintain close contact with all pro-democracy groups, including Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy colleagues. Members of our embassy at Rangoon meet Aung San Suu Kyi at least once a month and other members of the National League for Democracy at least twice a month. The British Ambassador last called upon Aung San Suu Kyi on 15th March and he will, of course, maintain contact with her.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister was in Burma yesterday. Is it known whether any progress was made at the talks?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I have no information about what took place yesterday. However, I assure the noble Lord that when I saw the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister I raised these matters with him. He gave me assurances similar to those received by my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn about helping the refugees and concerns about moving them away from the border to safer areas within Thailand.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister recognise the duration as well as the extent of the burden of caring for refugees which has fallen upon Thailand? It must be 20 years since her predecessor, Lord Geronwy Roberts, agreed from that Dispatch Box to grant £500,000 in aid to the Thai Government to alleviate the difficulties in

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camps along the border with Pol Pot's Kampuchea. Can she look seriously at giving financial aid to that country while it is suffering an economic depression?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, UK aid is being given to help the ethnic minority and refugee communities. The United Kingdom Government have ensured that last year's aid was increased. Since 1992, the previous administration and the current administration have provided £630,000 in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries. The important point is that aid is going to the neighbouring countries, including Thailand.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, what are the Government's contacts with Premier Oil in Burma?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, when we discussed the matter on 25th March, I was able to tell the House that my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett raised the issue with the chief executive of that company when he met him on 17th December.

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