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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I thank very warmly all noble Lords participating in this debate, especially as the date has been made available at relatively short notice, so soon after the opening of Parliament. I am sorry that some noble Lords who wished to contributesuch as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who speaks with great authority on this subjectare unable to be here except in spirit. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject today as I returned last week from the region and am deeply concerned about the situation.
Despite token gestures by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime, such as the release of some political prisoners, it continues to perpetrate gross violations of human rights, such as the use of forced labour, human minesweepers, child soldiers, military offensives against innocent civilians, rape, torture and massacre. Such atrocities in the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Chin and Arakan states continue unabated. The violations are so systematic, ruthless and comprehensive that they can justifiably be designated as ethnic cleansing or genocide.
The SPDC has taken no steps towards democratic reform since the release from house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 6th May 2002, and it continues to support or condone widespread brutality, corruption and trafficking in narcotic drugs.
I shall focus primarily on the plight of the ethnic minorities, as the recent visit to the Karen, Karenni and Shan people provides first-hand testimonies of the desperate plight they encounter. I will not disclose locations as the SPDC is notorious for its policies of retaliation, but I would naturally be willing to supply details to your Lordships on request.
First in this dreary and disturbing catalogue of human rights violations is the widespread and persistent use of forced labour. Civilians are arrested by the Burmese army and forced to work in such harsh conditions that some, especially the elderly, die or are beaten to death. The requirement to undertake forced labour as porters carrying food or ammunition for SPDC troops can be so frequent that villagers cannot adequately tend their own crops or sustain their families.
A typical account was given by a 45-year-old man who had fled his village three months ago because SPDC soldiers had killed his brother and were looking for him. He was afraid that they would kill him, too. He had fled with his family, and they are now living in very harsh conditions as internally displaced persons
Second in this catalogue is the use of human beings as minesweepers. SPDC troops force civilian porters to walk ahead of them so that they will be blown up if there is a mine in the pathway. One victim of this policy is a Buddhist farmer, aged 38, with one leg amputated below the knee and the other severely mutilated. He described how, eight months ago, he had been injured when forced to carry food for SPDC troops. The soldiers had forced him to walk ahead, and he had trodden on a landmine which blew off his right foot and severely wounded his left leg. The soldiers left him to die in the jungle. Word of his plight reached his village and his uncle came to rescue him. However, his uncle stepped on a mine and was killed outright. Two days later, other villagers came to take him back to the village. They could not take him for treatment in Burma as they would have had to pay prohibitive costs, so he was taken across the border to Mae La camp, where he was given a below-knee amputation. He subsequently returned to Karen State.
He described how he had had to undertake spells of forced labour at least 20 times, carrying ammunition weighing about 40 kilograms. When he was hit by the landmine, his wife was pregnant. She gave birth just two days before we spoke with him. However, they could not return to their village because he could not work and because they fear that the village may have been mined. Four other people from his village had also been killed by landmines in recent months. He also described how SPDC soldiers maltreated the porters undertaking forced labour. If they became weak or ill or were not strong enough to carry the heavy loads, the soldiers would beat and kick them to such an extent that many died. Although he is a Buddhist, he claimed that the SPDC tends to treat Christians worse than Buddhists because it wants to force all people to become Buddhists.
Thirdly, I turn to military attacks on villages, in which villagers may be killed, tortured, raped and their livestock stolen or killed, their crops burnt and homes destroyed. For example, in central Dooplaya district in Karen state, from April to June this year over 5,000 people have been displaced, six villages burnt, six schools destroyed, three churches burnt, 15 villagers murdered, including women and children as young as two years old, three pastors captured and tortured for five days, their whereabouts still unknown, and over 28 villages attacked and looted and the villagers forced to relocate. So, over 1,000 of these people are hiding in the jungle attempting to escape through Burma army patrols to safety in Thailand.
There is also concern that retaliatory attacks are carried out regularly against Karen villages by SPDC troops after they have engaged in military action with Karen soldiers in the vicinity. This policy of reprisal is obviously totally unacceptable.
Fourthly, there is evidence of an SPDC campaign of sexual violence, including gang rape, especially of women in Shan state. Colleagues interviewed 12 Shan women who had been subjected to such gang rape and one described how her two daughters had subsequently been killed by SPDC soldiers.
Fifthly, I refer to the abduction of children by SPDC soldiers and their conscription into the army. We interviewed two recent defectors from the SPDC army. They are both Burman Buddhists who had been abducted at a very young age and forced to serve in the army. One boy is a young Buddhist aged 14 from a town in Yan Gon area. He had been captured by SPDC soldiers when he was just 11 years old. Those soldiers grabbed him when he was standing at a bus station going to visit his aunt. They took him to Ta Kyin Koe First Battalion Camp. He has not been allowed to contact his parents for the past three years.
He said that there were many boys of similar age in that camp. After eight months he was sent to a training camp for regular soldiers for the fifth battalion where he underwent basic training for four to five months before being sent to Light Infantry Battalion 341 in Karen state in Papun township. After a few days he was sent to the front line. In a unit of 30 soldiers, 15 were about his age. They were treated like adult soldiers, having to undertake regular military activities. They were sometimes beaten by the NCOs. During seven to eight months at the front line, he saw villages being attacked, local villagers rounded up and having to work for the army or pay fines to avoid such work.
The SPDC told him and the other boy soldiers that the Karen people would kill them if they ran away. He believed them, but he was so unhappy that he did escape, preferring to die rather than to remain in the army. In the event he found that the Karen were extremely kind and looked after him extremely well.
Sixthly, we were told that the SPDC is building a dam in Tho Tom district which will flood seven or eight Karen villages. The river is a tributary of the Swaleen river. To add insult to injury, the villagers are required to provide the labour for the construction of the dam which will destroy their homes, their land and their livelihood. Each household has to make available one member of its family every day to work without payment. If they refuse, they have to pay a fine of 500 kyat. The SPDC authorities have not provided any alternative land or homes, and the people who will be displaced have nowhere to go for shelter or to feed their animals, when the dam is completed next year. The authorities claim that the dam is needed to supply water, but the local Karen categorically claim that there is no water shortage in the region.
The cumulative effect of such policies can, as I said, be described as genocide, in the sense that they are designed to clear the peoples from their homelands by killing them, terrorising them, destroying their means of subsistence and denying them the basic essentials for physical and cultural survival.
May I therefore ask the Minister, first, what pressure Her Majesty's Government have brought to bear on the SPDC to implement a nation-wide ceasefire and take forward a genuine dialogue with the democracy movement in general, and with the ethnic minorities in particular, to try to achieve a political solution and peace with justice for all the people of Burma? Secondly, will Her Majesty's Government raise with the SPDC the violations of human rights to which we have testified and which have been documented by many other organisations? Thirdly, will the Government urge the International Labour Organisation to pursue further its investigations into the SPDC's continuing policy of forced labour and associated brutalities? Fourthly, will the Government work with the international community to require the SPDC to allow access to all parts of Burma by independent, international humanitarian aid and human rights organisations? At present, many people die from lack of food and essential healthcare. If the SPDC has nothing to hide, why does it not allow unfettered access to all its citizens? Fifthly, if the SPDC is not willing to allow such measures, will Her Majesty's Government consider encouraging the international community to increase diplomatic sanctions and to consider other policies, such as economic sanctions, as a matter of urgency? Finally, will Her Majesty's Government request China, India, Pakistan and Singapore not to sell military weapons to the SPDC while it continues to use them to kill its own people?
Many Karen and Karenni people regard Britain with respect and affection. They remember with appreciation the dignity that they were afforded by the British administration, and they recall how many of them died fighting alongside British forces and, sometimes, for British soldiers. The international community in general, and Britain in particular, have a moral imperative to help to save the lives of thousands of innocent civilians who are suffering and dying in Burma today at the hands of a brutal regime. One IDP asked:
During a previous debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on 2nd October, 2000, I expressed the hope that Her Majesty's Government would press for co-ordinated international action to assist the non-Burmese minorities who daily suffered the denial of basic human rights. I said that the United Nationsthe Security Council, in particularshould act with urgency. I also expressed the hope that,
Here we are, two years and two months later, still pursuing the same demands. It is clear that little or no progress has been achieved. More, much more, must be done by the United Nations. At the same time, Her Majesty's Government should press for a common European Union policy of sanctions. The need for immediate and meaningful international intervention is overwhelming. Report after report from the areas mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, confirms that the atrocities take place in a systematic and ruthless manner.
As recently as last month the General Assembly affirmed that the establishment of a genuine democratic government in Myanmar is essential for the realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. That draft resolution, distributed on 12th November, referred to the release of a number of political prisoners and, among other matters, welcomed the appointment by the International Labour Organisation of a liaison officer in Myanmar as a first step towards the establishment of full and effective representation of that organisation in the country.
While the international community can draw some comfort from the words contained in the draft, it should also take serious notice of the grave concerns expressed, in particular the grave concern about the ongoing systematic violation of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the people of Myanmar; the extra-judicial killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence carried out by members of the armed forces; the use of torture; and renewed instances of political arrests and the continued detentions, including those of prisoners whose sentences have already expired. There is concern about forced relocation; the destruction of livelihoods; forced labour; and the denial of freedoms of assembly, of association, of expressions and of movement.
The United Nations has also said that it has great concern about discrimination on the basis of religious or ethnic background, widespread disrespect for the rule of law and lack of independence of the judiciary.
We have heard much in recent times about the need for independent and effective examinationthis in relation to other parts of the world. I suggest that it is just as important to the people we are talking about this evening.
We should ask our Government to press for safe and unhindered access by the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations, as called for by the UN. They should be allowed to go and see what is going on for themselves, so that the world can have its eyes opened, as this House has again had its eyes opened this evening through the initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. There is no lack of evidence to support the need for action.
Last month, Christian Solidarity Worldwidean organisation I support and admirepublished a report containing horrific details of the brutal use of systematic rape practised by the Burmese military. Perhaps I may describe two accounts. The first concerns a young woman aged 22, Nan Ei. She was looking for dockfruita kind of jungle fruitwhen she came across column commander Captain Ye Htut and second-in-command Lieutenant Htin Kyaw. The soldiers took Nan Ei and her companion to their army base in Pah Klaw Hta in Nyaunglebin district. I hope that I have pronounced the names of those places correctly. The noble Baroness will tell me later if I have not; I am always willing to learn. However, they are in the Karen state. That night, on 10th June, Nan Ei was brutally gang-raped by 20 soldiers. On her release the next day, Nan Ei recounted her ordeal:
The second account is from Naang Yord. She told of the time about two years ago when her village in Shan state was forcibly relocated to a new site where the land was less fertile. Together with her eldest daughter and her niece, Naang Yord sneaked back to the family's old rice fields. They wanted to harvest some rice to pay for the funeral of her husband, who
I want to repeat to the House a question posed by an elderly Catholic nun. She works with the internally displaced ethnic people who told of how women and children were "living like animals" in the jungle. This wonderful nun said that she admired, but despaired of, their bravery in making dangerous and difficult journeys, dodging Burmese soldiers to come for small handouts of rice and salt. She spoke of their fear and suffering and also of the gratitude in their eyes. She said:
The answer, however inadequate it may seem, is to support and endorse the six measures outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. In her moving and thought-provoking speech, the noble Baroness gave us a way forward, however inadequate it may seem to the people who are suffering. Again, I pay tribute to her for her dedication to the suffering minorities in Burma and, as this House knows only too well, for her concern for other parts of the world. I hope that the Minister can reassure your Lordships that these measures will be pursued with energy and determination.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, over the two years since this House last met to debate the subject of Burma, some observers have had cause to express hope. There have been cracks in the once firmly locked doors of the offices of democratic groups. We have seen the release of some 350 political prisoners. Optimism has been generated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release on 6th May. There has been hope that, at last, the SPDC will not break promises to move forward in its transition to democracy. Hope has been vested in the authority of UN envoy, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, whose reputation as an outstanding diplomat has been widely recognised.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, said, such hope has, sadly, been forlorn. It is no surprise that a fortnight ago, our Foreign Office Minister, Mr O'Brien, welcomed the adoption of a resolution of the third committee of the UN General Assembly that expressed grave concern over the human rights situation in Burma. The resolution, which was co-sponsored by the European Union, expressed concern about the ongoing, systematic violation of human
We have heard similar views, not least from the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr James Kelly. He said that nothing demonstrated that more clearly to him than the SPDC's reaction to allegations of extensive, systematic use of rape by the military in Shan state and its manipulation of the International Committee of the Red Cross's efforts to expand its work in ethnic regions.
The report License to Rape, which has been alluded to, was issued in May of this year. It lists in detail the Burmese military regime's use of sexual violence in the ongoing war in Shan state. It is essential, if horrific, reading, not least as a terrifying expose of the systematic use of terror and violence in the modern world. Under the heading, "Rape condoned as a weapon of war", it lists the systematic and widespread incidence of rape, officers committing rape, further torture, the killing of raped women, and gang rape. There are also sections on militarisation leading to increased vulnerability to rape, forced relocation and forced labourand so, tragically, it goes on.
The regime in Burma persists in a twin approach of brutal violation of its ethnic minorities and repressive policies against its political opponents. The Myanmar Government continue to rule by the law of terror and oppression. Democracy, political pluralism and opposition have no place under that regime. The ethnic and religious minorities who live within the borders of Burma, and who, by their very nature of minority status, should most merit the protection of the government, are routinely terrorised, while those who are brave enough to stand up for their beliefs risk arrest, detention, torture and murder.
So I am glad that my noble friend Lady Cox has led this debate. She has described the horrific abuses of human rights in Burma, the effects of which she has witnessed on so many occasions. This is humanity at the nadir of its existence.
What has happened in the years since we last debated Burma? There has been a continuation of gross abuses and shocking violations of human rights. The systematic deportations of the Karenni to relocation camps where foreign NGOs have not been allowed access and the ethnic cleansing of the Karen, akin to genocide, defy description and words to condemn them are not strong enough.
Summary executions; deaths in custody; absences of due process of law; inhumane treatment of political detainees, particularly in the notorious prisons outside Rangoon; forced civilian labour, which the US Embassy in Rangoon estimates generates 3 per cent of Burma's GDP, and which is often used for infrastructure projects such as roads and airports
With Britain's record of strong links with Burma, it is hard to stand by and watch as the country is brought to its knees. Economic and social collapsethe bedfellows of a strangled democracyare fast beckoning Burma towards a future of yet more chaos and misery. In a recent report, the UN special rapporteur confirmed that when he said:
The ethical dimension to the Government's human rights policy raised many expectations when first elucidated to the House. Many critical comparisons were made between the Government's hardline policy towards Burma and their "softly, softly" approach to China, whose human rights abuses many considered to be equally egregious. Despite those double standards, if the ethical dimension to foreign policy had any backbone whatever, its force should first and foremost have been felt by a regime as steeped in blood and tyranny as that of Burma.
Human Rights Watch has called for a new multilateral policy towards Burma, which would include dialogue with the Burmese army, the democratic opposition and the ethnic minority organisations, combined with co-ordination on common interests between Western donors, Japan, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and China, as well as seeking actively to engage China in finding a solution to the Burmese impasse, on the basis that neither the international community's policy of isolation on the one hand nor constructive engagement on the other were working.
The winds of change are sweeping across south-east Asia. We must do more than cross our fingers and hope that Burma does not remain immune to the process of democratic reform that is taking place around her. Will the Minister outline how the Government are seeking to harness those forces of reform to bring them to bear in Burma? What active measures are the Government taking to sustain the Burmese opposition, and what progress is being made to resist the regime's efforts to wear down international resistance to its undemocratic rule, given the continuing oppression of the National League for Democracy?
The challenge for the international community now lies in matching our goals for Burma's future with the tools available. It is not inappropriate to ask why we do not apply equal attention, resources and rhetoric to those who possess weapons of mass destruction and those regimes that enact torture, rape, fear and humiliation on their own people. If this is to be a century in which we recognise and promote human rights for every man, woman and child, we could do worse than to turn the cameras of Cable News Network on Burma and the attention of packed, influential parliaments in the West to man's inhumanity to men, women and children wherever it exists.
Our tools of persuasion are limited and we have few calibrations of subtlety and balance. The tools of condemnation and isolation are blunt and heavy, but they are justified if, and only if, they achieve a result. That result would be a peaceful and stable government in Burma who reflected, not rejected, the will of the Burmese people; a government who turned their energy to fighting the battle against poverty, rape, corruption and despair, rather than fighting their own people; and a government who are an engine of growth and a full participant in the global economy, rather than the outpost of condemned isolation that they are today. That is no easy task, but it is one that we must today, once again, pledge ourselves to fulfil.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing this important debate, which she did with appalling clarity. It would be good to able to say that we can see the situation in Burma improving. Can we see a chink of light? If so, it is surely distant. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, argued, little has changed in recent times. Yet, the country's current economic plight, after years of economic mismanagement, may present an opportunity for the international community to do more to bring pressure to bear on the country to democratise and put an end to its widespread human rights abuses. As the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, put it, words are not enough. We need action. We cannot stand by while atrocities such as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, have described are carried out.
It is welcome that Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and that she has had some freedoms restored to her. But that means little to ordinary people unless democratic rights are extended much further. Her release has clearly been used as a smokescreen covering further human rights abuses, as the international world concentrates on her and not on what is happening to the vast majority of the oppressed population.
There is a feeling among some that international opinion is focusing chiefly on the need to democratise Burma and expecting human rights abuses thereafter to be curbed. Those working in that field argue that human rights abuses must be tackled now. I believe that has come across clearly in this debate. It simply cannot wait.
As we have heard, the particular concern is with the Karen and Shan people, among whom guerrillas have been based and against whom the military authorities have taken vicious action. As the Jubilee Campaign explains, the Burmese Government have pursued what is known as the "Four Cuts Policy", designed to deprive the guerrillas of any possible food, funds, recruitment or intelligence from the civilian population. To quote the Jubilee Campaign:
As we have heard, above half a million people have been forcibly relocated, away from their villages to areas controlled by the military. Those who flee are likely to be shot on sight if discovered and, of course, fleeing from place to place means that they cannot cultivate crops or adequately support themselves. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. Those who are relocated are often forced into labour or the army. There have been massacres, again as we have heard, as people seek to flee across the border with Thailand.
The government in Thailand, in recent times, have sought to return some of those refugees as they seek to improve their own relations with the government in Rangoonalthough once refugees are in the refugee camps, overseen by the international community, they are likely to be safe.
I should like to ask the Minister what assistance is being provided to such peoplethe dispossessed? Is the aid in the form of financial support for those still within Burma, rather than simply within the refugee camps in Thailand, welcome though that is? Will the Government work closely with NGOs on the Thai/Burma border to send cross-border humanitarian aid from Thailand to the half million internally displaced people in eastern Burma?
What pressure is being brought to bear on the Burmese Government to halt those atrocities and what are the British Government doing to raise the cases of the Karen, Karenni and Shan at the United Nations? In addition, what pressure is being brought on the
Besides the human rights problems in the eastern region of the country, there has long been a problem with forced labour. The ILO brought out its report last year and now has someone in Rangoon monitoring its implementation. We would welcome the fact that pressure continues to be applied by the ILO. The Burmese Government have agreed to put an end to the practice of forced labour, issuing edicts to that effect. As others have said, nevertheless the practice continues, particularly in the rural areas, but on a more informal basis.
In terms of how pressure may be brought to bear, we need to look at the effect of economic sanctions. Clearly, that is a problematic area. There surely must be widespread support for "smarter" sanctions against repressive regimes, such as the EU arms embargo and severance of defence links with Burma. Britain must take more action to combat arms brokers. However, I note that the International Development Select Committee recently reported in The Future of Sanctions that there is evidence to suggest that economic sanctions often do not target those truly responsible while increasing the suffering of civilian populations. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that issue. We would certainly like to see the establishment of a UN body with responsibility for targeting financial sanctions and the establishment of an office of foreign assets control so that individuals and states are more effectively targeted. But in the case of Burma it can be argued that since any company seeking to work in Burma must work with the military regime, it is the military regime that benefits first and foremost. Could the Minister comment on whether the Government are maintaining a policy of discouraging investment in Burma, and what do they do when companies ignore that recommendation?
I note that BAT Industries is one company that is established in Burma, and of course Kenneth Clarke is on its board. That is surely one industry which has no place in Burma in any capacity or, for that matter, any role in any developing country; ordare I sayanywhere. The terrible toll of illness and death that has resulted from the use of tobacco in western countries should simply not be visited on developing countries. Burma has enough health problems among its population without incurring further harm.
It is clearly a great challenge, given the nature of the regime in Burma, to get international assistance into the country so far as health problems are concerned. There is of course a strong link between poverty and ill-health, and between poverty and reproductive health. A report in the Lancet recently has detailed how Burma's health is in crisis. The infant mortality rate is at least twice as high as that in Vietnam and
It designates Burma as a category A country where there is the most urgent need of assistance. And yet, because of the regime in Burma, it cannot get that aid in. It has therefore been unable to channel adequate funding into Burma. The kind of action that UNFPA has been able to take in China, for example, has proved impossible in Burma.
Robert Templer, writing in a recent report for the International Crisis group, stated that it was not certain that attempts to avoid a health disaster in Burma would succeed, but that certainly Burma could not turn the tide,
I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government have found any means to deliver this kind of aid and what other assistance is feasible to try to improve the health of the Burmese people, and thus to help lift them out of poverty. The Government's preference is, as I know, to work with governments. They must not in a case like this, when they do not wish to deal with a government like the Burmese Government, neglect the people of Burma. What are they doing through NGOs to try to change things?
Burma is clearly in the grips of a social, political and economic crisis. Human rights abuses abound, as we have heard, and democracy looks as far away as ever. And yet now just might be a time of opportunity. The military regime in Burma does respond to foreign pressure, if only to step up its propaganda efforts. It is in dire need of economic assistance, and this may just open the possibility for the international community to influence events. We have to hope that the international community is ready and willing to do just that and that the abuses that we have heard about will shock people into action.
Last month the EU reaffirmed its position on Burmaan arms embargo, bans on supply of equipment that would be used for internal repression, no defence links, no non-humanitarian aid, no high-level visits, a visa ban and an asset freeze on members of the regime. These sanctions share one clear objectiveto place the military regime on notice that it must seek a peaceful solution to resolve the political deadlock in Burma and cannot continue to ignore the aspirations of the people.
The Burmese people have shown admirable courage and resilience in refusing to give up hope of democracy. They deserve our support. Today the House has been united in its condemnation of the regime in Burma.
The human rights situation in Burma offers just a glimmer of hope. The junta has recognised that change is necessary. The International Labour Organisation has established a liaison officer in Rangoon, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said. We welcome the re-opening of some NLD offices and a reduction in the restrictions applied to the NLD and other political groups. The release from house arrest of the opposition leader, Daw Suu Kyi, is perhaps the biggest step taken to date. This has been accompanied by her increased freedom to travel, with less but by no means no restriction on behalf of the authorities. We also welcome the dissemination of human rights standards for public officials, some governmental organisations and ethnic groups through a series of human rights workshops. But now we need to see the end of politically inspired arrests, the release of all political prisoners and the establishment of a genuine government in Burma.
As my noble friends Lady Cox and Lord Moynihan, and the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, pointed out in excellent speeches, the regime is still systematically perpetrating gross violations of human rights. Children as young as 11 are being snatched off the streets, given military training and then coerced into battle and barred from contacting their families.
My noble friend Lady Cox spoke very clearly of the terrible suffering in Burma's border areas, and particularly of attacks on the Karen, Karenni and Shan people. My noble friend has also drawn the attention of the House to the persistent and widespread use of forced labour, the use of human beings as mine-sweepers and the continual attacks on villages and the displacement of villagers. Indeed, recent UN estimates indicate that up to 600,000 Burmese may be internally displaced.
We on these Benches express our grave concern at the murders, rapes and other forms of sexual violence and torture carried out by members of the armed forces. My noble friend Lord Moynihan described this rightly as humanity at its nadir of existence.
In May this year, the Shan Human Rights Foundation published a shocking report detailing the rape of 625 girls and women in Shan state by Burmese government troops in the past five years. According to the report, Licensed to Rape, 83 per cent were committed by army officers. The rapes involved extreme brutality and often torture in the form of beating, mutilation and suffocation. Twenty-five per cent of the rape victims were killed; 61 per cent were gang rapes. Out of a total of 173 documented incidents, only one perpetrator was ever punished.
Two years ago, the military regime began talks with Daw Suu Kyi, ostensibly to discuss political transition. Since then, the regime has released 550 political prisoners, citing this as proof of its goodwill. However, of these, less than 150 were released early. The others had either been detained without charge or had already completed, or even exceeded, their sentences.
Furthermore, the releases that have taken place are not unconditional. Nearly every one of the released prisoners has been forced to sign an agreement that they will not engage in any further political activities. The regime does not hesitate to re-imprison those who refuse to be intimidated into inaction.
Last month, U Maung Ko died in Thyawaddy prison. He was the 82nd political prisoner known to have died since 1988. The situation is not improving; he was the fourth to die in the past four months. Many prisoners remain desperately ill and without due medical attention. A 72 year-old journalist, U Win Tin, a senior member of the NLD, has been in prison since 1989 and is suffering from serious health problems. The current charge against him is that he tried to send information on poor prison conditions to the United Nations.
Others may die in prison due to the length of their sentences. Thet Win Aung has been in Kale prison since 1998. He has a 60-year prison sentence, yet he appears to be innocent of any crime. There are 26 other prisoners whom the regime has labelled as subversives. They are set to remain in prison indefinitely, despite the fact that their sentences were completed years ago. The best known is student leader Min Ko Naing, who has been kept in solitary confinement since 1989. His sentence expired in 1999, yet still he remains in prison. In September last year, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention made public its opinion that he was being detained illegally.
In February, a 75 year-old professor, Dr Salai Tun Than, was given a seven-year prison sentence for peacefully handing out letters in Rangoon calling for elections to be held within a year. This summer, a law student, Thet Naing Soe, staged a peaceful protest in front of Rangoon city hall. He was arrested and given a 14-year prison sentence for making speeches and displaying posters. Days later, another student, Khin Maung Win, who was arrested with him, was given a seven-year sentence. Will the Minister confirm that the
Burma is one of the world's largest producers of heroin. It is a trade from which the Burmese regime profits and from which Britain suffers. A great deal of heroin ends up on British streets. The supply of dangerous drugs will continue so long as the rule of law is absent in Burma.
In recent months, there has been an apparent decrease in the amount of opium cultivated in Burma, but this may be due to the fact that methamphetamines are replacing heroin. Unlike heroin, taking these pills does not carry the risk of HIV. Their production in Burma is astronomical. It is estimated that between 900 million and 1 billion methamphetamine tablets, worth £2 billion, will be shipped across the Thai border next year.
I welcome the efforts Her Majesty's Government have made to establish a robust EU common position on Burma. In particular, trade with the SPDC is not to be encouraged. Exports from the EU to Burma have fallen from 150 million euros in 1996 to only 81 million last year. However, imports from Burma have increased in the EU more than fivefold over this period, with the UK as the chief offender. Can the Minister account for this trade, which is contrary to the EU position and which goes against the call for economic sanctions by Daw Suu Kyi and those working for democracy in Burma? We must continue to deprive resources to the regime, which is currently allocating more budgets to defence and the internal security apparatus.
Last month, the Indian military attache to Burma supplied Burmese brigadier-general Tin Maung Oo with 30 truckloads of weapons and ammunition, including heavy artillery shells. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will request the Indian Government to stop supplying the SPDC with weapons.
I look forward to the Minister's response to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Cox about what pressure the Government will bring to bear on the regime to take forward a dialogue with the democracy movement. India, Malaysia and Singapore have particular influence with the Burma regime. I also hope that the Government will work with other countries to enable international humanitarian aid and human rights organisations to visit different parts of Burma.
The government in Burma are looking for increased international aid, foreign investment and a lifting of trade restrictions. These clearly cannot be granted at the moment. However, we hope that the international community can offer incentives with joint problem-solving initiatives, such as humanitarian co-operation on HIV/AIDS campaigns, without prematurely withdrawing effective sanction leverage. Clearly, any assistance for appropriate humanitarian aid projects must be properly monitored.
Finally, I understand that the British embassy in Rangoon runs a small scholarship programme in Burma. What action are the Government taking to encourage Burmese students to attend universities in the UK?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for the opportunity that she has given us tonight for a serious, thought-provoking debate on the plight of the people of Burma and the Government's response to that plight. I wholeheartedly agree with much of what has been said tonight. The overall picture so movingly painted by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is depressing and all too accurate.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, pointed out, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May should have been the platform for national reconciliation, respect for human rights and a transition to democracy in Burma. Sadly, it has not. Instead, regime leader Than Shwe continues to refuse to allow substantive political progress. It now looks as if the nascent political process that has struggled to unfold in Burma over the past two years is running out of steam and may be on the point of collapse.
The past two years have seen some very modest positive movement. This has included the release of the 400 or so prisoners referred to by noble Lords, the reopening of branch offices of the National League for Democracy and some relaxation of restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi, who can now travel around Burma. These changes are welcome, but they do not go anywhere near far enough, nor do they mean that the military authorities are committed to national reconciliation, respect for human rights and democracy.
While we welcome the release of the 400 prisoners, we remain gravely concerned about the plight of the 1,200 or so political prisoners who remain in detention, including MPs-elect from the 1990 elections in Burma. The noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Astor of Hever, referred to the appalling conditions in prison.
Acting on behalf of the European Union, the British Ambassador in Rangoon met the Burmese Foreign Minister on 20th November to express concern over the fresh political detentions and arrests there and the continued detention of large numbers of political prisoners. He also raised our concern to the regime's No 3, Khin Nyunt, on 26th November. We will continue to press for the immediate release of all political prisoners. We are pleased that NLD offices are reopening, but we are under no illusions about the restrictions that remain on democratic groups. The National League for Democracy is not allowed to publish a newsletter and its officials are subjected to constant surveillance and harassment. We also welcome Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to travel around Burma. Since May she has visited Mandalay, Mon, Karen and Shan States where she has been received by large crowds.
Repression, violence and human rights abuses cover all corners of Burma, from the Muslim Rohinghyas in Rakhine State to the Christian and Buddhist groups in Karen, Karenni, Shan and other states. To Thet Naung Soe, the student mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, was sentenced to 14 years on 15th November for making a peaceful protest outside Rangoon City Hall.
Credible reports detailing instances of rape by the armed forces, again movingly recorded by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, the use of child soldiers and violence in the ethnic minority areas have been published by NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. However, the regime has chosen to dismiss many of these reports as the work of insurgents or political opponents. As a Government we strongly disagree and have expressed our concerns repeatedly. We welcome the fact that the United Nations Third Committee passed a resolution on Burma earlier this month and condemned the ongoing systematic human rights violations there. My noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead, in his impressive contribution, acknowledged the importance of this latest UN resolution, as did the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan.
Of particular concern were reports of torture, extra-judicial killings, rape by members of the armed forces, forced labour, the continued use of child soldiers, forced relocation, denial of freedoms of assembly, association, expression and movement, and discrimination on the basis of religious as well as ethnic background. The EU drafted and co-sponsored the United Nations resolution and we as a Government were very proud to play our part in that process.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my honourable friend Mike O'Brien said in a public statement on 2lst November, the resolution is an accurate account of the Burmese regime's record.
We have been talking about forced labour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, forthrightly pointed out, the regime's record on forced labour remains stubbornly abysmal. The European Commission has suspended Burma's trading privileges in response to the use of forced labour. The UK has been a staunch supporter of the ILO's efforts to get the Burmese regime to address the problem. We have welcomed the appointment of an International Labour Organisation liaison officer in Burma.
The European Union most recently voiced its ongoing concern in Geneva at the ILO on 20th November, the details of which are on the FCO website. The ILO's action on Burma is unique. It is the only time in the 83-year history of the organisation that such action against an individual country has taken place, representing the concern over forced labour in Burma.
The former rice basket of Asia now struggles to feed itself. The regime spends under one per cent of GDP on health and education combined while over 40 per cent goes on the armed forces. It is an awful record of self-induced suffering for which Senior General Than Shwe and the other leaders must take full responsibility.
The Department for International Development is working hard to help those suffering under the misrule of the regime. As we know, large parts of the country remain off-limits to the UN and to NGOs. Access is a major problem particularly to those internally displaced. We are pressing for freedom of access to all parts of Burma for the UN and NGOs.
Noble Lords asked about current UK policy. The UK has been at the forefront of international action in pressing for urgent progress towards respect for human rights and the return of democracy to Burma. With our European colleagues we have a strong EU common position, acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, that includes an arms embargo, a ban on defence links, a ban on high-level visits, a ban on non-humanitarian assistance, a ban on sales of items that can be used for internal repression and torture, and a visa ban and asset freeze on regime members.
The UK does not encourage trade, investment or any tourism in Burma. We support the excellent work of the UN Special Envoy to Burma and his efforts to promote political change there. We are active in countries all around the world, including those mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to bring about the widest possible pressure on the Burmese authorities.
My honourable friend Mike O'Brien confirmed our commitment to political change when he spoke on the telephone to Aung San Suu Kyi on 1st November. Senior General Than Shwe has it within his power to take substantive steps now to move towards a more prosperous, peaceful future for all the people of Burma. We call as a Government upon Senior General Than Shwe to exercise the necessary political will and leadership to break through the present stalemate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, kindly gave me notice of some questions she wanted answered. She asked what pressure Her Majesty's Government have brought to bear on the regime to pursue dialogue. We have been at the forefront of a strong EU common position, including sanctions. We do not encourage trade, investment or tourism, and we have been active in the UN and other countries to bring pressure to bear on the regime.
The noble Baroness asked whether Her Majesty's Government would raise with the regime human rights accusations. We regularly raise concerns over human rights with the regime and in the UN. The Foreign Office was putting our concerns again to the Burmese
Will we pursue further sanctions? I cannot at the moment add to the measures I have outlined, but we wish the regime to be under no illusion that Burma's links with the international community can and will get worse if its rulers do not urgently pursue a transition to civilian rule.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked whether we would request China, India, Pakistan and Singapore to stop selling weapons to Burma, as did the noble Lord, Lord Astor. As I said, we are in contact with those countries to try to bring about the widest possible pressure on the regime. I will take back to the Foreign Office the noble Baroness's concern on that aspect of weapons sales, which has been raised by other noble Lords. We are actively trying to persuade China and other countries to do more to promote change in Burma.
My noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead asked about a strong European common policy of sanctions. I have outlined that, but I wish to say to him that maintaining and strengthening an EU common position is an area of policy on which the Government are extremely robust.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, talked movingly about the dreadful situation of rape in Shan state. He is absolutely right; there is credible evidence that this is a serious problem. The EU has pressed for many years for action in UN resolutions. We say that this issue must be addressed by a credible independent investigation.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also talked about China and all the countries in South-East Asia, all of which have an important role to play. We are activelybilaterally and multilaterallybringing the widest possible pressure to bear. He also asked about help for the opposition, the National League for Democracy. As he knows, the regime makes such help
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, talked about aid for internally displaced people in Burma. We give money to the UN and to NGOs to support those suffering from the regime's misrule. She also raised cross-border aid issues. The fact is that internally displaced people have difficulty accessing aid. We fund the ICRC and the UNHCR, but the existing cross-border programmes are not transparent or accountable. As she knows, the transparency and accountability of aid programmes is a very serious issue for DfID. It is therefore still a very difficult issue. I hope that she will be patient with me if I write to her on the other points that she raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, specifically mentioned the case of U Win Tin. U Win Tin is on the FCO priority list of prisoners of conscience around the world. The noble Lord also raised the issue of trade with Burma. As he will know, in 1997, the EC suspended Burma's trading privileges in response to the use of forced labour. He also raised the issue of drugs and the increase in the opium tradean issue which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, raised in a Written Questionand I shall reply to him in writing.
The international community would be willing to support a genuine process of transition to civilian rule in Burma. However, the Burmese authorities should not underestimate the resolve of the democratic groups in Burma and the international community. Burma's standing in the eyes of the world can and will deteriorate further if promises from the Burmese authorities about pursuing a transition to civilian rule are not kept. We will not let up until Burma is irreversibly committed to lasting change.
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