October 29, 2007


John Bercow recounts his visits to the Thai-Burma border and suggests a ban on the provision of insurance cover to companies that trade with the Burmese regime.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country of the world, the use of human minesweepers, the incarceration of political prisoners in conditions of unspeakable bestiality, religious persecution, water torture and the destruction of more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma in the past decade are all chapters in the story of savagery that has shamed the Burmese military junta in the eyes of the world.

In the past three years, I have twice visited the Thai-Burma border and, in September this year, I returned from a week-long visit to the India-Burma border. Those visits left indelible impressions on my mind. I will never forget hearing testimony about a man who was dangled over a hot fire as part of his punishment. I will never forget speaking to a man who had been incarcerated and beaten throughout the night, and who had suffered the humiliation and agony of having his body swung repeatedly against a pillar. I will never forget hearing testimony about a man in Insein prison who was so malnourished, so ravaged, and so painfully thin that, in the words of my interlocutor, it was possible to see his intestines moving like worms.

I will never forget meeting a boy, now aged seven, who at the tender age of three was forcibly abducted by Government troops for use as bait, taken to a remote army camp, placed in a cold, stone room with a mud floor and no windows, and kept there for no fewer than eight hours without being offered food or water. I will never forget, on my first visit to the Thai-Burma border in April 2004, meeting parents who had seen their children shot dead in front of them, and meeting children who had seen their parents shot dead in front of them. I will never forget the stories of the barbaric mutilation that regularly takes place, courtesy of the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw. We are talking about eyes being gouged out, tongues being ripped out, noses being chopped off, and heads being chopped off. Above all, I will never forget the harrowing, chilling stories about heads being placed on pillars or posts in prominent parts of villages as a warning of what might lie in store for anyone who dared to rebel, or simply to presume safely to exist as a member of a minority.

In light of the present situation, I have to call to mind all the experiences of the past 45 years and ask the House: what is new? The human rights abuses are not new, because as my right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, noted, they have been taking place for 45 years under the auspices of the barbaric and illegitimate Government. There is nothing new there. The abuses are not unrecorded, so there has been no new discovery of historical events; on the contrary, for decades, the abuses have been extensively documented by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch, by the Burma Campaign and—if I may say so with particular force and admiration—by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, whose Asia advocacy officer, Ben Rogers, has in recent years undertaken no fewer than 18 visits to the Thai-Burma border, and many visits to other borders. So there is nothing new there, either. There has been no revelation to the international community. Indeed, I think it fair and safe to say that, on the whole, the international community has been conscious of the nature, scale and recurrence of the abuses, but has by and large thought it politic to look the other way—to turn a blind eye and discuss a more convenient or comfortable subject.

I remember asking the then Prime Minister about the situation in Burma on 8 November 2004, and his reply was revealing and salutary. He said, at the Dispatch Box, that it was really only the absence of television cameras in Burma and a number of other places of despotism that enabled the dictators to get away with their ill-gotten gains and to cling to their power for so long. Now, the situation has changed, at least in the sense that we have learned of the nature of the abuses with an intensity that was previously denied to us. We have seen the bravery, courage, sacrifice and sheer undiluted heroism of the monks and others, and we have seen the sheer viciousness of the response from what must undoubtedly be one of the most egregious abusers of human rights to be found anywhere on the face of the planet.

Of course, we have to ask what we can do to bring about change. Every speaker tonight has asked that question and sought to answer it. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and others correctly referred to the role of the European Union. I am sorry to say that hitherto it has been fiddling around in the undergrowth, and its position has been to opt for the lowest common denominator. It has sought sanctions in the form of action against the pineapple juice sector and a tailor’ shop in Rangoon. I am delighted that as a consequence of concerted pressure, of continued publicity and of remorseless protest from the international community and millions of ordinary people, it has now gone beyond that. Worthwhile sanctions are now in place, but we need to monitor them to ensure that they are enforced. As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said, we have to be sure that they are not effectively flouted via a circuitous route through the use of third countries. We should go for a comprehensive investment ban.

Let me make one other suggestion about the European Union: why do we not suggest, and advocate as policy, a ban on the provision of insurance cover to companies that trade with the regime? It is difficult to envisage companies being willing to trade with it if they cannot get insurance cover. There is a role for the European Union, and a role for the United Nations; that has to be pre-eminent. We need a Security Council resolution of a binding character that sets out, in terms, the actions that are required of the regime and an exacting timetable within which they have to be performed. That resolution should say that Aung San Suu Kyi should be freed; that all remaining political prisoners must be released; that there should be clear, free and unimpeded access both for humanitarian aid organisations and for those undertaking professional responsibilities to assess the human rights situation on the ground; and that there must be meaningful progress in tripartite talks with the National League for Democracy—the true victors of the 1990 elections—and representatives of the ethnic national groups, failing which, intensified sanctions, particularly the imposition of a comprehensive arms embargo, will follow.

Of course, there is a role for others, too. India and China are central, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) acknowledged. It pains me to reflect that India’ behaviour is getting worse at a time at which China’ might be considered to be getting a little better. How can the country of Gandhi and Nehru behave as it does, selling attack helicopters and the arsenals of potential destruction and certainly of human rights violation to this appalling regime? It simply is not right. It is not right that China does so; it is not right that Russia does so; it is not right that Serbia does so; it is not right that Ukraine does so; and it is not right that the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations continue to do so. There comes a point at which we must say, “When will nations choose respect for human rights and democratic values over the reckless pursuit of filthy lucre?” As the hon. Member for Cheadle said, of course, it is right that Britain should put the priority of public interest and the availability of information ahead of the excuse of commercial confidentiality for companies importing goods and other equipment from Burma. I thought that the figure in 2006 was about ¬£26 million-worth of goods. Companies that import goods from Burma should be named and shamed. People have a right to know the country of origin and the method of production of the goods that they are invited to buy.

I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, and I think that it will be echoed later by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development. We should embrace wholeheartedly the recommendations of the International Development Committee to quadruple aid, to facilitate greater cross-border assistance, and to back the women’ organisations and trade union groups that have toiled in the vineyard for years to help the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. We should support a range of exiled organisations, which not only have practical experience and worth to contribute, but should be part of the reconfigured arrangements in a new constitutional democracy in Burma.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am extremely pleased at what my hon. Friend said about British companies importing goods from Burma. My understanding is that we import £26 million-worth of such goods, so does he agree—and I think that he alluded to this—that those companies should be named and shamed?

John Bercow: I certainly do. We have to do a great deal more, and ultimately, we have to decide how we are going to deal with a regime that is as despotic as the Burmese regime. One of the most horrific recent revelations was the report, supposedly unconfirmed but probably reliable, that the crematoriums were working overtime, burning the bodies of the regime’ slaughtered victims. Any regime that can behave in that way must be decisively confronted and defeated, rather than continually appeased.

Dr. Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend’ powerful description of that behaviour is, as he says, not a new description of that regime. It is not new, either, in the history of totalitarian Governments of both left and right. Is it not strange that many of the countries that he listed as helping the Burmese dictatorship claim to have broken with, or at least moved away from, totalitarian dictatorship themselves? Cannot more be done to try to show those countries that if they are to live up to the claims that they make for their own political evolution, they must put pressure on the Burmese Government?

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that underlines the importance of a much wider and more sophisticated concept of national interest. Many countries say that they do not want to interfere. We know perfectly well that, under international law, it cannot possibly be justified for a state to hide behind the cloak of sovereignty by practising egregious human rights abuses, so the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is well established in international law.

My response to other countries that are considering whether to give support to, or to trade with, Burma is simply that they do not know what the consequence of their behaviour may be. It is not simply a question of damaging consequences for individual citizens living in Burma but of the spread of disease; of an increase in the arms trade; and of regional and global insecurity that could result from a rogue state that is left untamed. It is a tiger that is on the loose, and it has to be dealt with decisively. Ultimately it comes down to the question of whether the member countries of the United Nations are prepared collectively to decide that the UN is an instrument of necessary change in the world, or whether they are content merely for the UN to be a symbol of passive acceptance of a thoroughly unsatisfactory status quo. I hope that it is the former, not the latter. I rejoice in the fact that there is substantial consensus on many issues across the House. We need to ensure that there is priority, focus, determination, resolution and clarity in public policy. That is right in itself, it is what the people of Burma need, and it is what they most certainly deserve.

6.56 pm