June 15, 2005

Human Rights (Burma)

Leading a debate on human rights violations in Burma, John Bercow calls for EU sanctions and a UN arms embargo.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate on the important subject of human rights, or perhaps I should say their violation, in Burma. I begin by declaring my interest, duly recorded in the register, as parliamentary adviser to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The timing of this debate could hardly be more apposite or opportune. On 19 June, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and leader of Burma’s democracy movement, will have spent nine years and 238 days in detention and she will celebrate, if that word can be used without absurdity, her birthday. She has long ceased contact with members of her family and representatives of the international community. Her post is intercepted, her telephone is unavailable for her regular use, and much-needed medical treatment has been denied. Her situation is serious indeed.

Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that towards the end of the last Session—on 1 December, if memory serves—an early-day motion was tabled on a cross-party basis and secured 289 signatures. That motion paid tribute to the championship of democracy, freedom, justice and human rights by Aung San Suu Kyi and called for the establishment of meaningful talks with a view to a speedy transition to democratic pluralism in Burma.

When we talk about abuse of human rights, we think often of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Sudan under al-Bashir, and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. We should think of Burma more readily than we do, because there is no doubt that the military junta that rules Burma and has continued to flout its people’s views is one of the most savage military dictatorships to be found in the world. The record is well established, the documentation has been provided and the evidence has been regularly collated, but let the argument be reiterated so that we are clear and so that outside observers unfamiliar with the historical record are in the know.

Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers and human minesweepers, and the daily destruction of rural villages, especially in eastern Burma, are all part of the cocktail of barbarity that has disfigured that beautiful but long-suffering part of the world. The use of child soldiers in Burma is on a scale proportionately greater than in any country in the world. The suffering is immense. The situation in Burma is not simply a matter of historical events about which there is continuing argument. The crisis is real, the atrocities continue, the pain is now. In the past 12 months or so, there have been continual attacks by the Burma army—the Tatmadaw—on the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan and the Chin people, to name but four examples of ethnic nationals targeted, vilified, attacked, maimed, disfigured, raped and murdered on the deliberate say-so of the so-called State Peace and Development Council, the name of the ruling regime.

It is salutary to note that, on the advice of an American public relations company, I believe, the governing body of Burma changed its name from the State Law and Order Restoration Council‚Äîotherwise and perhaps more fittingly known by the acronym SLORC‚Äîto the State Peace and Development Council. When I was a young boy first taking an interest in politics, I asked my father what I thought was a simple but valid question. “Dad,” I asked, for I regarded him as the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, “Why, given its reputation for human rights abuses, is the German Democratic Republic so called?” He sagely replied, “Ah, son, it is called the German Democratic Republic precisely because it isn’t.” There is a sense in which that is true in respect of the Burmese Government. Military offensives, not only against army opponents of the regime but against unarmed, innocent and non-political civilians, are a fact of life. We are talking about a 100,000-strong army attacking villages.

Visiting the Thai-Burmese border last year, courtesy of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I met parents who spontaneously volunteered to me that they had seen their children shot dead in front of them. Similarly, I met children who told me spontaneously that they had seen their parents shot dead in front of them. That is the scale of the savagery and wanton destruction of which the Government of Burma are guilty.

The sources of evidence are many, respected and compelling: they include the United States State Department, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Free Burma Rangers, the International Labour Organisation, the Karen Human Rights Organisation and the Shan Human Rights Foundation. The evidence is all on the record and documented, and the papers have been provided. Governments throughout the European Union and in north America and UN member states have been told of what is happening in Burma. I believe that the abuse of human rights in Burma is the most shameful and under-reported such abuse to be found anywhere in the world.

New evidence has recently been provided by Mr. Guy Horton, the author of a new report, which he calls “Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma”. Mr. Horton, who has presented the evidence in Washington and will shortly do so at a press conference in London, argues that the Government of Burma are guilty of human rights violations that contravene three important protocols and public declarations. He argues that the regime is guilty of, first, crimes against humanity under article 7 of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and, secondly, breaching common article 3 of the convention on refugees. He concludes, that in addition to those crimes against humanity and war crimes, the Government of Burma are guilty of attempted genocide under the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. That is an extremely serious charge. My understanding‚Äîthe Minister will tell me if I am wrong‚Äîis that the British Government are not currently persuaded that the evidence constitutes proof. I hope that they will be prepared to look at that further when they have the chance to study the detailed report.

There is also serious concern about reports in the past few months of what circumstantial evidence suggests was either a chemical or a poison weapons attack on an army resistance camp in Karenni state. Independent medical examinations of residents of that camp have led to the conclusion that they have symptoms of what appears to be illness resulting from a chemical or poison weapons attack. We have heard about the explosion of shells, a sinister disgusting yellow vapour, and the consequences for the people in the camp of severe irritation to the eyes, damage to the lungs, a marked deterioration in the muscles and a period of prolonged weight loss, to name but four of the symptoms. We have also heard testimony from army deserters that they were instructed by their controllers in the Tatmadaw to carry boxes containing poison weapons. It is incumbent on the British Government proactively to consider the evidence and either satisfy themselves that it is compelling and that referrals of identifiable suspects to the International Criminal Court should take place forthwith, or decide that that they are not so satisfied, in which case the Minister has a responsibility on behalf of the Government clearly and openly to explain to the House why they are not persuaded by what appears to be compelling evidence.

Let us, briefly—I am conscious that many hon. Members in the Chamber wish to take part in the debate and have serious and informed contributions to make—look at the overview of the position in Burma. I have deliberately not subjected the Chamber to a history lesson about what has happened in that country. Many people present will be familiar with the brutality of the regime over the past four and a bit decades. They know only too well that the results of the 1990 elections, in which the National League for Democracy was manifestly victorious, were ignored by the Government, who are absolutely hellbent on retaining the aggressive and intimidating power of the military component of the regime.

There were a few cursory and tokenistic releases of prisoners from jails not long ago, which were trumpeted by the regime and its naive or malign agents as constituting evidence of a dramatic march towards the democratic process on the part of the regime. Of course, they were nothing of the sort. The truth is that there are still between 1,300 and 1,400 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience incarcerated in varying conditions of severity and deprivation in Burma’s jails. The offices of the National League for Democracy remain shut and there is not the slightest sign of the release of one of the heroines of the struggle for freedom, justice and democracy in the world today, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regime, typical of authoritarian and, worse still, totalitarian regimes, spends a vast proportion of its national budget on the military, but spends, I believe, 19p a year per person on the health of the people. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that one in 10 children in Burma do not survive beyond the age of five. That is an horrendous state of affairs.

When I think about the reports of domestic organisations on the ground whose representatives I was privileged to meet last year, I think that we cannot look the other way and choose to think of and talk about something else. The Karen Women’s Organisation’s 2004 report “Shattering Silences” and the Shan Human Rights Foundation’s May 2002 report “Licence to Rape” tell us about premeditated attacks on innocent people by the representatives of the army, which are all calculated to keep people down, to deny them protection and to send a message to anyone who might be thinking of arguing against the regime that they should not consider doing so. The Burmese people’s plight is extremely serious. I do not think that that is be a matter of disagreement in this Chamber. The question is: what do we do to improve the situation? Can the Government, unilaterally, multilaterally or supranationally, take any action that would alleviate the plight of the people of Burma, in particular the long-suffering ethnic nationals, and offer the prospect of relief and progress in the future?

There are steps that can be taken. First, I appeal to the Minister to confirm that the Government will actively investigate the Horton allegations, if I may describe them so. Will he confirm that the Government will examine, painstakingly and in detail, the allegations of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide? Secondly, will they examine the particular accusation made public by Christian Solidarity Worldwide of an attempted chemical or poison weapons attack on the Karenni army resistance camp?

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): May I touch on a point that the hon. Gentleman has not yet talked about and might not reach? He has mapped out the details of an appalling regime, which has continued since 1962 in the face of worldwide opposition. We must recognise that it has survived since that time whereas other equally turbulent regimes have collapsed. What does he think are the reasons for the longevity of that appalling regime in Burma?

John Bercow : There are reasons for the longevity of the regime and I will detail them in broad terms and in short order. First, the regime is militarily powerful and its opponents are nothing like as militarily powerful. Secondly, there is an absence of television cameras in Burma. They would help open up to public and international view the reality of the violation of human rights that is taking place and would give the opportunity for independent testimony to the scale of the savagery.

Thirdly, the United Nations and other organisations have not accepted their responsibilities. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman, not for the first time and probably not for the last, has most helpfully prodded me to the third point that I want to make to the Minister about action to be taken and the attitude required for it to be carried out. I hope that today he will accept that, however well intentioned the policy of engagement might have been—I accept that it is a policy that applied under the Conservative Government as well as under the present Government—it has proved to be an abysmal failure. Under the Conservative Government, trade fairs were taking place in Rangoon between 1994 and 1996 when people were being slaughtered in Burma. Imports from Burma, which were worth £17.8 million in 1998, now total about £74 million.

Let us consider the EU-wide position. Since 1988, $4 billion-worth of trade and investment has been conducted with Burma by member states of the European Union. Total—one of the most serious offenders, whose activities have done a great deal to prop up the brutal, savage military dictatorship in Burma—is in the process of investing about $400 million in Burma. I have raised the matter with the Prime Minister in response to his statements in the aftermath of European summits. I have urged him to add to the list of agenda items on which he is regularly in dispute with President Chirac by rightly remonstrating with him about allowing the disgraceful, antisocial and deeply damaging behaviour of Total to prop up the regime in that way.

I say to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) that the international community must accept responsibility. The European Union must acknowledge that engagement has failed, that the brutal military dictatorship continues, that the semi-moderate Prime Minister in office until last year has been deposed, that a hard-line fascistic military despot is now in place and that the road map to democracy and the national convention that was supposedly to take place to facilitate a multi-party dialogue about the country’s future are things of the past. We need the European Union to get serious: it must implement a targeted sanctions policy and apply a comprehensive investment ban on Burma. Targeting the pineapple juice sector and a tailor’s shop in Burma does not constitute evidence of serious intent on the part of the European Union to bring the regime to heel. Indeed, the word “tokenism” readily springs to mind.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I have waited many a long year for an opportunity to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that he is being far too optimistic and sanguine about the European Union; that opportunity has now arrived. The chances of the European Union doing anything effective against Total are minuscule. However, the company is this country’s fourth biggest oil supplier. Can my hon. Friend not think of measures that this country could take to hit Total where it hurts‚Äîin its pocket? Such measures might prove slightly more effective.

John Bercow : The interesting point to emerge from my hon. Friend’s intervention is that although I have not thought of ways to improve the position unilaterally, he has manifestly done so. It would be profitable for me to have further dialogue with him in the hope that we can launch a joint approach or two-handed initiative. The House ought to be aware that my hon. Friend and I, who have been friends for a long time, have always understood that we have only one brain and we have decided to share it between us. On this occasion, my hon. Friend has considered the issue carefully and contributed substantially to my thinking on this matter. I had not worked out precisely how we should proceed, but perhaps we can proceed within EU trade rules. If so, we should not wait for the collective response of the European Union‚Äîwe might wait for that for a long time‚Äîbut take unilateral action.

The UN has a role to play as well. It is a counsel of despair for the Government to argue, as the Minister did in a parliamentary written answer to me on 25 May this year, that there is no consensus on bringing the issue of Burma’s human rights abuses to the UN Security Council, as if that were a justification for the Government’s wilfully continuing to fail to do so. I say in all candour to the Minister that I recognise that it is difficult to make progress, but the logic used by the Foreign Office is a case of reductio ad absurdum. Its argument goes, “We do not think that we will get agreement in the Security Council. The French will probably complain and the Chinese will strongly object and veto any action. Therefore, it is not worth raising such matters.” Miss Widdecombe, you know as well as I that if the Conservative Opposition in this House worked on the same principle, we would not have staged a single Opposition day debate since 1997. We would simply have said, “Oh well, it is all hopeless. We cannot possibly win. The Government won’t take any notice and we won’t win a single vote. We might as well pack up and go home.” I am sure that that would be satisfactory for the Minister and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), to name but two hon. Members, but we have not taken such an approach. The Government should raise matters such as Burma’s human rights abuses and put them on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. Let us name and shame those states that, because they lack any moral sense or they are consumed by the pursuit of filthy lucre‚Äîor both‚Äîobject to, and use the veto against, any effective action that could help to bring the regime to heel.

In terms of sanctions, there is another stick that we can use against Burma. Everyone knows that Burma treasures the forthcoming chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations in 2006. In respect of international credibility, that post is important to Burma. We should say that that is unacceptable. Parliamentarians in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, to name but three ASEAN countries, have objected to the idea that Burma should have the chairmanship. Through its military expansionism, its involvement in the drugs trade, and its spawning of a humanitarian crisis as a result of the flow of refugees over the border, Burma now poses a serious threat to regional stability. Apart from its regional threat, it is also guilty of terrible human rights abuses. Unless and until Burma can comport itself in accordance with the standards of civilised behaviour, it should not be allowed to parley on equal terms with the world’s democracies. We should say through the European Union, “Unless and until you clean up your act, you will not have the chairmanship of ASEAN.” One thing that we can say is that we will have no part in meetings under Burma’s chairmanship if it is allowed to go ahead.

The Prime Minister has often displayed a truly laudable determination to tackle rogue states and to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world. Sadly, to date, Burma has not formed part of the equation. I am not making a party political point: it is a great indictment of the House that, so far back as records can be traced, not one ministerial oral statement has been made in Parliament about the abuse of human rights in Burma. That situation should change. If we declared our intention as a Parliament to oppose the regime, we could make a difference in time. If we were to adopt, through the European Union and the United Nations, the sanctions that are needed in respect of the oil, gas, timber and gems sectors on the one hand and follow up with a comprehensive UN arms embargo on the other, what a difference that could make.

The Government of Burma have a responsibility to stop subjugating their citizens and to start liberating them. If they will not act voluntarily, they must be squeezed, squeezed and squeezed again. Like many other despotic regimes throughout the world, the Government of Burma are contemptuous of weakness. They respect only strength. They will respond only—if at all—to pressure, pressure and more pressure. If we take the approach that I recommend and if the Prime Minister is willing for his remaining period in office to put himself at the head of a movement to bring about change in Burma, that would be right in itself. It would also enable us to send the most delightful and welcome 60th birthday present to Aung San Suu Kyi.

2.58 pm

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