David Alton has vigorously campaigned for human rights in Burma. After several appeals in the House of Lords, David successfully helped to release the pro-democracy activist James Mawdsley. James was arrested on 31 August 1999 for distributing anti-Government literature near Burma’s border with Thailand. He was given a 17-year jail sentence, but was released after 14 months in prison.
Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Whether they have received any reports on discussions between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and leaders of ethnic national groups within Burma.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords contributing to this debate, especially at such short notice. However, it is important to take this opportunity as the situation in Burma remains very grave.
The State Peace and Development Council is continuing to oppress all who promote democratic reform. The Nobel Laureate democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, although her eloquent voice is heard. Less often heard are the voices of the ethnic national groups, many of whom are suffering and dying at the hands of Burma’s military regime. It therefore seems appropriate to focus tonight on their plight and their relations with the SPDC.
Four weeks ago, I visited the Karen and Karenni peoples of eastern Burma, with John Bercow, shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Just prior to that, I visited the Chin and Kachin people of north-western Burma. I shall focus on the evidence obtained from those visits. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has also visited the Karen people frequently and recently, and I think he may give some indication of their plight this evening.
There is also abundant evidence from many reputable organisations of the systematic violations of human rights of the national groups. Examples include Shattering Silences from the Karen Women’s Organization in 2004, Licence to Rape, brought out by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and No Safe Place by Refugees International in 2003.
I shall first consider the Chin and Kachin people. Forced labour is widespread in Chin state. Civilians are regularly forced to leave their homes to work as porters for SPDC troops, carrying loads of ammunition or rice weighing as much as 30 kilograms-over 60 pounds. Such an imposition occurs so frequently that many cannot tend their own crops, and flee to neighbouring India to survive. As porters, they have to carry such massive loads from dawn to dusk, with virtually no food, water or rest. Elderly people who fall by the wayside are beaten and may be killed or left to die.
The SPDC denies that it is using forced labour, but we were given copies of official letters, such as one from an SPDC company commander to village leaders in southern Chin state issued on 13 December 2003, demanding 40 porters from the village and 30 from another village nearby to report to the nearby SPDC camp to carry rations for the military. The SPDC maintains 10 battalions in Chin state, amounting to more than 7,000 soldiers. They frequently supplement their inadequate pay and meagre rations by attacking villages, stealing food and maltreating civilians.
As in the rest of Burma, the SPDC does not tolerate any political opposition in Chin state. Involvement in pro-democracy or pro-federalist activities can result in arrest, imprisonment and torture. A former teacher in Chin state described how he was arrested and tortured for holding classes for students in Chin language and culture. He was told that it was forbidden to teach Chin language and culture in schools. He was detained for a week. He was punched and kicked and his captors rolled a stick along his shins until the skin came off.
On the subject of religious persecution, it is estimated that 90 per cent of the Chin people are Christians. However, SPDC forces offer incentives to impoverished villagers to convert from Christianity to Buddhism. Children from Christian families, often between the ages of five and 10, are lured from their homes with the promise of education. They are placed in Buddhist monasteries, where their heads are shaved, they are trained as novice monks and they never see their families again. Crosses have been destroyed and villagers forced to build pagodas in their place, contributing finances and labour. Christians are required to obtain permits for renovation or construction work, but no permission for new church buildings has been given since 1994.
The Chin do not traditionally permit alcohol in their society, but since 1992, in an attempt to disrupt Chin traditions, the SPDC has brought in large quantities of an alcohol known as “OB”, a mix of methylated spirit and industrial spirit. It is highly addictive and extremely toxic. It is sold on streets, especially on Sundays, to young people. Boys and girls as young as 12 years old have been sold the alcohol by the army and police. Addiction leads to crime and possibly death. The medical effects include toxic liver failure and damage to brain cells. Last year in one town of 5,000 people, there were at least 10 deaths as a result of that alcohol consumption.
Since 2000, the SPDC military presence in Kachin state has doubled despite a ceasefire agreement. We were told that,
“forced labour for roads and pagodas occurs on a daily basis”.
Like the Chin, the Kachin are also estimated to be 90 per cent Christian and they suffer policies of oppression and religious persecution similar to those inflicted on the Chin people.
I turn briefly to the Karenni, Karen and Shan people in eastern Burma whom I also visited recently. Despite its rhetoric about implementing a road map to democracy and its ceasefire talks with the Karen leadership, the SPDC continues military offences against civilians, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, forced labour, use of porters as human minesweepers, forced relocations and the use of child soldiers.
We interviewed many people who had had to flee from their homes and villages because they could not endure the repeated ordeal of being forced to work as porters, undertake other forms of forced labour for SPDC troops or being forced to serve as human minesweepers. Many have had to hide in the jungle as IDPs where they suffer multiple deprivations, lack of food, medical care and shelter. There is a high toll of suffering and death. It is cold at night, but they dare not light fires for fear of detection and subsequent capture by SPDC troops, with torture and the possibility of being killed. Lack of healthcare results in high rates of deaths from avoidable or treatable disease, as in the case of a mother who told me that five of her seven children had died of malaria. I heard of many similar cases.
The SPDC is exploiting its vaunted cease-fire with the Karen to escalate its military offensives against the Karenni people, moving troops to the Karenni border with relatively little resistance through Karen state, because of the ceasefire. From December last year to April this year, the SPDC mounted many severe military offensives in Karenni state and as recently as April 19, SPDC troops crossed into Thailand to attack Karenni targets with RPGs and rifles.
Overall, since 1996, over 2,500 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed, at least 1 million people have been displaced, 365,000 people have been moved to relocation camps and 268,000 people are living as IDPs trapped in the jungle.
In view of this dire situation, may I ask the Minister a rather large number-indeed, a barrage-of questions? I realise that she will not be able to address them all this evening. However, they are relevant to the Question on the Order Paper as they relate to the context of the discussions and the sincerity of purpose of the SPDC. I hope that she may be able to answer the questions in due course. They also reflect the concerns that were expressed to us by those in the ethnic national groups whom we met. I emphasise that I know it is an unacceptably long list of questions.
First, will Her Majesty’s Government urge the European Union to impose targeted economic sanctions, which would penalise the regime, without having adverse effects on the majority of the population, for example, the prohibition of capital investment, trade in timber and marine products and investment in oil exploration and production?
Secondly, will Her Majesty’s Government urge the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo, in view of the fact that the SPDC devotes approximately one half of its national budget to military expenditure, which is used in offensives against its own civilians?
Thirdly, will they urge the Governments of Thailand, India and Bangladesh to desist from repatriating displaced Burmese citizens without adequate security guarantees? Fourthly, will they urge ASEAN nations to consider suspending Burma from ASEAN? The need for such consideration is urgent in view of the Burma’s impending presidency of ASEAN in 2006.
Fifthly, will they urge the SPDC to open all of Burma to international humanitarian and human rights organisations? Sixthly, will they urge the SPDC to adopt a policy of tripartite talks involving the National League for Democracy and the ethnic national groups and to adopt a nationwide ceasefire on principles equally applicable to all parties in the conflict? Seventhly, will they impress upon the SPDC the unacceptability of its current procedures for the national convention, which involve limiting participation to those whom they invite, censoring contributions and denying media access? Next, will they raise with the SPDC the widely held concerns over violations of religious liberty, not only against the Christians, which I have detailed this evening, but also against Muslims in other parts of Burma?
Ninthly, will the Government urge the International Labour Organisation to intervene as a matter of urgency? Tenthly, will they consider initiating proceedings for bringing the SPDC to account for war crimes? Finally, will they consider more sympathetically support by DfID for cross-border humanitarian aid to the many thousands of IDPs in Burma, who are currently denied healthcare, adequate food supplies, shelter and education? Other national governments provide such cross-border assistance and personnel currently providing such cross-border aid adequately fulfil the criteria of accountability, transparency, impartiality and professional effectiveness. Furthermore, these criteria may be better fulfilled by these personnel than by aid organisations operating inside Burma under constraints imposed by the SPDC.
In conclusion, we owe it to any people suffering such atrocities to do everything in our power to help them. However, ethnic national groups such as the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin and the Kachin have a historic relationship with us-fighting alongside our soldiers and sometimes giving their lives for them. Therefore, they hope that we will not forget their loyalty or let them down now in their hour of need. I hope that this debate in your Lordships’ House will reassure those people of our loyalty to them and our commitment now to do everything possible to ensure they achieve the freedom, peace and justice that they desire so passionately and for which they are paying such a high price.
Lord Chan: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this timely debate, particularly as the military rulers of Burma opened a national convention last week, 17 May, to finalise a new constitution for their country. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has a formidable reputation for championing people whose human rights are being violated in many parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa.
The people of Burma, regardless of politics, ethnicity or religion, have suffered from more than 30 years of internal warfare and military oppression. After decades under a brutal military regime, a widespread movement for democracy culminated in the massacre of thousands of demonstrators throughout the country in 1988. The military dictatorship bowed to intense pressure and held elections in 1990.
May 27 marks the 14th anniversary of the 1990 elections when the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, won over 80 per cent of the seats in parliament. The military regime, the State Peace and Development Council-SPDC-rejected the 1990 election results and refused to hand over power to the democratically-elected legitimate representatives of the Burmese people. Some of the elected representatives have been in detention or exile ever since.
May 30 marks the first anniversary of the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in Depayin by 3,000 members of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), an organisation affiliated to, and controlled by, the military regime. According to Burma’s government in exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the military regime indicated that 282 people were killed in that attack. The life of Aung San Suu Kyi was endangered and she was taken into detention again without news of her whereabouts or her welfare for several months. The SPDC continues to hold Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, 1,400 people are detained as political prisoners; they restrict freedom of speech and association and insist that the new constitution guarantees that the military retain a hold on key political roles.
The national convention that opened on 17 May has been described as a sham by several bodies, including human rights organisations, Burmese pro-democracy organisations and most ethnic national groups, as well as most democratic governments around the world. Proceedings of the national convention exclude the participation of the main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and most ethnic national groups.
The NLD and ethnic national groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Shan State Army-South (SSA-South) and the umbrella United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), have boycotted the national convention because the SPDC rejected calls to release NLD leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U from detention, open all NLD offices and permit free discussion of the issues being considered in the national convention.
For example, citizens have been warned that if they discuss the constitution outside the confines of the national convention, they could face gaol sentences of between seven and 20 years. The national convention delegates are hand-picked by the SPDC and the whole event is a stage-managed rerun of the failed national convention that collapsed in 1996.
The governing council of the Inter-Parliamentary Union adopted a resolution on 23 April this year, in which it declared that the IPU:
“reaffirms its conviction that the National Convention in its present form is designed to prolong and legitimize military rule against the will of the Burmese people as expressed in the 1990 elections, and that this stands in direct opposition to the principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the ‘will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government'”.
Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and other noble Lords, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to send a strong message to Burma’s military rulers about our grave concerns for ethnic nationals who are being persecuted without respect for their human rights.
With regard to internally displaced people, most of whom are from ethnic national groups, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said about DfID’s humanitarian assistance. That assistance-through the Burmese Border Consortium-goes to 140,000 refugees in camps in Thailand, but no aid at all goes to the internally displaced people trapped inside Burma. There are several indigenous ethnic national organisations that go across borders to distribute humanitarian aid to the internally displaced peoples in the jungles of eastern Burma. These organisations provide a high standard of accountability and transparency to donors, with regular written reports, accounts of use of funds, videos and photographic documentation.
As part of a review of the Government’s Burma policy, I encourage the Minister to consult with ethnic national groups, including backpack health worker teams, to ascertain levels of accountability and reconsider their policy to cross-border aid to internally displaced people. DfID could also train the ethnic national groups to improve accountability. Christian Solidarity Worldwide supports aid to ethnic national groups.
Christian Aid, through its recent report, Burma’s Dirty War, urges the UK and Irish Governments, the EU and other nation states to:
“ensure that humanitarian organisations working with displaced people are provided with the necessary funds to support displaced people inside Burma and to continue to support refugees in Thailand”.
We have heard about religious persecution against the Chin, but Burma is one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom since 1999-according to the US State Department. The persecution of Christians in Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin areas, and Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan State, is widespread.
In Karen State, churches have been burnt down and Christian activities disrupted. A 53-year-old Karen Christian woman told Christian Solidarity Worldwide that in one village on 25 March this year, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army-a government-sponsored militia-ordered villagers to clear an area for the construction of a Buddhist pagoda in front of the village church. Materials were delivered on 27 March. Using a loudspeaker, the Buddhist army ordered Christians to build a pagoda. They threatened to kill the pastor of the church, who had to flee for his life. During Christian worship, the loudspeakers would blare out Buddhist propaganda, urging them to convert to Buddhism. The Buddhist army regularly made the villagers dig trenches and undertake forced labour, carrying heavy goods for them for no payment.
Will Her Majesty’s Government please raise with the SPDC the widely held concerns over violations of religious liberty, including compulsory contributions by non-Buddhists to the construction of pagodas, the closure of Christian churches and the persecution of Muslims?
Finally, I turn to refugees in Thailand. An estimated 140,000 Karen and Karenni live in camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Burma’s pro-democracy activists have been able to live in exile in Thai towns and cities, some claiming asylum through UNHCR.
But Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its definition of “temporarily displaced people” is extremely narrow. Thailand recognises as refugees only those who are fleeing armed conflict, not those who are fleeing persecution and human rights violations.
In August 2003, Thailand reached an agreement with the Burma military government to deport 400 illegal Burmese nationals a month. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will urge the Thai Government to desist from repatriation of temporarily displaced Burmese civilians, without adequate security guarantees acceptable to those liable to repatriation.
There are more than 200,000 Shan people in Thailand who have no protection whatever and are not provided with shelter, unlike the Karen and Karenni. Thailand has also recently banned NGOs from engaging in activities which might “irritate bilateral relations” with Burma, according to the Bangkok Post of May 16 last week.
This may affect the valuable work of Dr Cynthia Muang, who runs the Mae Tao Clinic near the Burma border in Mae Sot. She has treated almost 200,000 refugees since it was set up in 1989. The clinic’s activities are now being monitored, and,
“the authorities specifically ordered that any undertakings must not harm bilateral ties”.
Such vague wording could apply to any humanitarian or educational work which the SPDC dislikes.
I hope that the Minister will consider expressing concern to the Thai authorities and will urge the government of Thailand to desist from restricting the work of Dr Cynthia Muang.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Cox for initiating this debate on the situation in Burma. It would have been even more helpful if it had taken place after 7 June. The ambassador in Yangon is coming for a briefing and I hope that noble Lords know about that and have been invited. I very much hope that the noble Baroness will put her points and her questions to the ambassador.
I hold no brief for the government; I want to make that completely clear. I have no way of contradicting the points that have been made. However, if the noble Baroness were to go to some very poor parts of India, she might also find that a number of children have died as there is insufficient healthcare available. Every poor country has that problem. In Africa the situation is even worse than in India. We cannot lay everything at the door of the regime-that there is no healthcare or that people are poor or that nothing is available. That cannot entirely be laid at the door of the regime.
We have isolated Burma for some time. Before that, Burma isolated itself from us. In those days we said, “Wouldn’t it be good if they opened the door?” They opened the door and now everyone in this Chamber is saying, “Isolate them. Close the door. Don’t do anything. Impose sanctions”.
Noble Lords say that sanctions should be implemented in such a way that they hurt only the regime. Has anybody, as yet, devised a method by which sanctions hurt the regime but do not affect the people? All that the recent American sanctions have done is to put 70,000 to 90,000 people-figures are not exact-out of work. Burma is a very poor country. There is very little employment. The only employment for any intelligent young man is to go into the armed services. We have hounded out of the country all the companies over which we had any influence. There is no inward investment. There is no large-scale commerce in Burma. There are continual calls for reducing contact.
We have tried do this since the election 14 years ago. What has it got us? Where is it getting us? The regime is getting more entrenched, and feels it has got its back to the wall. It is a military regime: it is not going to collapse or give way just like that. We have two options: the option of dialogue and the option of armed intervention. We have tried armed intervention in another country-not very successfully-and we certainly will not be trying it in Burma. The only way forward is dialogue. It is time to talk, not to close doors on all conversation.
I am very interested to hear that the Burmese were such good allies of ours. Let us not forget that the national hero Bhojo Aung Sang fought against us with the Japanese. He later changed sides, but in the war he was not with us. It is not just the ethnic minorities we have to think about. The Bamar, the largest group, fought with us more than everybody else. The ethnic problems of Burma predate the present regime. They have been going on for a very long time, and it is well to remember that there are faults on both sides.
Other countries have had things done to their ethnic minorities. I remind this House of what China did in Tibet. Did everybody stand here and say “Let’s boycott China”? Why do we not boycott China? China has a very poor human rights record. It has no democracy, and it has treated its ethnic minorities-not to mention Burma-in a most appalling manner. But nobody is talking about boycotting China; we are talking about boycotting Burma. China enjoys preferred nation status with the United States; Burma is a small country with very little influence on anything.
Where does the regime get its funds? Does it get them from taxes? No, it does not. The money comes from gems and the opium trade. Who is it working with? China. It is the opium trade which keeps the generals funded. In fact, we have put them in a situation where there is no other way for them to get money.
It is time for us to stop listening to people like the Burma Campaign. I was at the pro-democracy group meeting in Parliament, and the representative of the Burma Campaign produced a ream of facts and figures on how much money the government get from tourism. Those of your Lordships who have been to Burma, as I have, will realise it is impossible to get facts and figures of any kind in that country. So how did the representative have them on tourism, to the last penny? Very little of the money spent by any tourist in Burma goes to the government. Most of the money goes to the people who provide the artefacts, who make the things, who work in hotels. All the hotels that people stay in are owned by companies which are outside the borders of Burma, by people from surrounding countries such as the Thais. There are hotels which are owned by the generals, but nobody goes to stay in them because the generals cannot manage to run anything. They cannot manage to run any factories, any hotels, or any tourism. The money goes much more to the people.
Taxi-drivers are going out of business because there are no tourists to carry around. Artisans are going out of business because there are no tourists to buy anything. I think it is absolutely appalling for us continually to call for boycott, boycott, boycott. It will not get us anywhere, and it will not help all those people in Burma we are championing today. For various reasons we are all championing the people of Burma. I went there last year, and I came back sad and frustrated because the people are wonderful. They deserve our support, not a wall around them saying, “Please do not talk to anybody”. It is time Her Majesty’s Government rethought their plans for Burma.
I think that Daw Suu Kyi is a most wonderful person, but she was invited to join the first constitution commission, which she refused. There was also talk when I was there last year that she was going to be invited to join this constitution commission. If so, she has obviously refused. She was also asked to become prime minister. When I put that fact to the Minister at the FCO, he said, “But there were strings attached”. Well, they are hardly going to hand over the country to her, are they? Of course there were strings attached. If she had-I am sure the noble Lord will have his chance. I am quite willing to give way-
Lord Alton of Liverpool: No.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I am sure that there were strings attached-nobody is going to hand over what they have to anybody else.
There is never all or nothing. If Daw Suu Kyi wants all, she will have nothing, as has happened for the past 14 years. If she found it unworkable to be involved in the affairs of Burma, she could then have said, “Look, they are doing this and I cannot support them in this manner”. It would have strengthened her position; it would have made all the neighbouring countries more aware of what was happening there. However, she refuses to have any interaction with the Government. We are following the same path of no interaction. But you cannot change things without interaction. You cannot change things without dialogue or involvement.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who has just resumed her seat, will know that I profoundly disagree with much of what she has just said. However, I am nevertheless glad to hear that point of view being expressed in our free Parliament. I hope it is an illustration to those who will read the accounts of this debate in places like Burma that contrary opinions can be held by Members of your Lordship’s House, and that we have the freedom to disagree. Although there will not be time for me to deal in detail with all the arguments that the noble Baroness has just put forward, let me just mention one or two things.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the democratically elected leader of the Burmese people, and this approach of “she wants to have it all or have nothing,” is not an appropriate way to speak of someone who has been elected as the leader of her nation, who has been excluded from the national convention talks and has been under house arrest. As we heard from my noble friend Lord Chan earlier, she also had an attack on her life just a year ago with 3,000 people attempting to take that life.
The noble Baroness mentioned the hotels in Rangoon. She knows as well as I do those hotels were built on the blood, sweat and tears of forced labour. People who travel to Burma and stay in those hotels should remember that. She also talked of the grinding poverty in the country. If that is so-and I agree with her that it is-then perhaps the Burmese military junta should spend less of their money on weapons, arms and their standing army, and use more of their money on the relief of poverty in their country. I congratulate her noble friend Lady Cox on characteristically-of course, I shall give way.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I have been told that in many countries the hotels are built on the poverty of the people. Burma is not the only country to do that. I accept totally that Aung San Suu Kyi is the democratically elected leader. For 14 years we have been saying that but it has not moved us forward. I am trying to move the matter forward. I have no brief for the junta.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness said that. It is worth reminding the House what the former UN special rapporteur on Burma, Mr Rajsoomer Lallah, QC, said in his report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar:
“The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations that continue to be committed by the armed forces in the ethnic minority areas. The violations include extrajudicial and arbitrary executions (not sparing women and children), rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehaviour by middle- and lower-rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility”.
That is not my personal, private view; it is the view of the former UN special rapporteur on Burma.
I say to the noble Baroness and to the House that I, too, have travelled-in my case, illegally-in Burma, but I have also travelled three times to the Burmese/Thai border and have seen first-hand some of the depredations that have occurred there. The Karen did not change sides during the Second World War; they were our allies throughout. Indeed, when I initiated a debate on this subject in your Lordships’ House in 1998, Lady Mountbatten of Burma was good enough to write to me, and I read her letter into the account. She reminded us that her father said that the Karen were our bravest allies and that they had become our forgotten allies.
The Minister will recall that during Question Time on 13 May I mentioned General Bo Mya, who is a holder of the Burma Star and the leader of the Karen National Union. I was able to visit General Bo Mya just a few weeks ago. I asked him-the noble Baroness may be interested in this-whether it was time to try to initiate dialogue and talks with the Burmese military junta. He agreed that it would be worth trying to do that. When I returned to London, I took a letter to the Burmese Embassy. I am glad to say that General Bo Mya was able to travel to Rangoon and to have the first talks there between the KNU and the Government in very many years. I regard that as welcome progress.
However, the non-participation of the KNU, the National League for Democracy, which my noble friend Lord Chan referred to earlier, and other serious and authentic voices inevitably turned the national convention, which was reconvened on 17 May, into a charade. The refusal of the SPDC to release Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U, which is why they have failed to participate in the talks, is the reason for their non-participation. It is simple: if the SPDC want to make progress, it should release Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her to come to the talks; it should release U Tin U and allow him to come to the talks; and it should release the 1,300 political prisoners who are held in Burmese gaols at present.
In a briefing note to your Lordships today-many will have seen the Myanmar News Bulletin-the SPDC attacked the NLD for ending, as it said, three years of active participation. But the SPDC must realise that the exclusion of leaders turns the convention into a charade. If that decision is reversed, progress towards what it calls,
“a peaceful, stable and sustainable democracy”,
becomes possible. Failure to make progress condemns the Karen and the other ethnic minorities to a desperate future.
Last year, with Congressman Joseph Pitts, I took evidence from the Karen about their continued suffering. The story of one child whom I met at a refugee camp near Mae Sot illustrates how the brutality and violence of this perfidious regime continues. Saw Naing Gae is just eight years old. He saw the Burmese military shoot dead his mother and father. He was then trafficked across the border and sold to a Thai family. Desperately unhappy, he managed to escape and made his way to the camp, where he is staying with a group of about 30 other orphans. He was unable even to smile. Every trace of joy and innocence had been stamped out of him-all this by the age of eight.
Saw Naing Gae squatted alongside four other children, brothers and sisters whose parents had also been brutally murdered. The oldest girl, aged 12, now head of their family, dissolved into tears as she recounted their story.
Let me share another first-hand account. Aged 45, the mother of five children and pregnant with her sixth, Naw Pi Lay was murdered in June 2002 by the Burmese military. During a massacre in the Dooplaya district of the Karen state 12 other people were killed, including children aged 12, seven, five and two years old.
Elsewhere in the same district at Htee Tha Blu village further human rights violations were carried out by Light Infantry Battalions 301 and 78. They beat and tortured villagers, stole their belongings and burned down their church and their homes.
When I visited the region in 1998 I illegally crossed the border and entered the Karen state. I heard and saw evidence of the internally displaced people, estimated now at some 600,000. I heard about and saw the scorched earth policy that has depopulated and destroyed countless villages. In 2003 I met one of the Free Burma Rangers who had just come out of the Karen state. He had been with a little girl of eight who still had a bullet lodged in her stomach. At great personal risk, he and many others had regularly gone into the Karen state to help people like her, often taking nurses and medics with them.
At Mae Sot, Congressman Pitts and I took evidence from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. They provided me with over 100 pages of carefully documented examples of human rights violations committed by Burmese military over the past 12 months. One day I hope that that evidence will be placed before an international court and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice for the genocide-I use that word advisedly because I believe that is precisely what has happened in the Karen state-that has been committed.
In evidence on behalf of the Jubilee Campaign, the group I helped to found some 20 years ago, I was able to give evidence directly to the United States Congressional Committee on Human Rights. I detailed many of the other atrocities to which there will not be time to refer tonight. The report I have just mentioned lists three mass killings by the SPDC. It is a carefully chronicled account of looting, burning, torture, rape and murder.
The SPDC routinely plants landmines. I visited a prosthesis centre and I met some of those who had had limbs blown from their bodies. I went to areas where landmines had been laid and the SPDC had then used Karen people as human minesweepers. I saw some of the victims, people whose limbs had been severed from their bodies, whose skin had been peppered with shrapnel, and others left blind.
I also talked to the families of people whose loved ones-men and women-had been seized and used as porters and construction workers and who had never returned. The SPDC kill many of the porters in frontline areas, especially when they are unable to work any longer because of exhaustion or sickness.
The international focus on Burma has long been on the heroic struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, but a settlement with the NLD would represent a solution to only half the conflict. That is why it is so right that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has concentrated our minds on the position of the ethnic minorities.
The seven ethnic groups who have been fighting for self determination or autonomy at some point or another since World War II-the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakam, Kachin, Chin and Shan-will still need to have their grievances addressed. In Chiang Mai I met with the authors of a carefully meticulous 120-page report on the Burmese military regime’s use of sexual violence in the Shan state over the past six years.
The report of the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network, Licence to Rape, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred, details how rape has been used as a weapon of war. Sexual violence, especially widespread gang rape, has terrorised and humiliated communities, flaunts the power of the regime, “rewards” troops and demoralises resistance forces.
Women who have been raped have frequently been abandoned or rejected by their husbands. One woman described how she was gang raped when she was seven months pregnant and then gave birth prematurely to her child. Another was told by her husband to leave, because:
“You didn’t control yourself. You are no longer my wife. Leave our home”.
The Burmese military junta have turned their country into one vast concentration camp, yet they fail to appreciate the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to endure and survive.
As Human Rights Watch points out in its superb report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, which I commend to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather:
“by violating the internationally recognised principle of non-refoulement, the Royal Thai Government is placing refugees and undocumented asylum seekers in danger of persecution, arrest, economic sanctions or other reprisals from government authorities, upon return to Burma”,
I hope that when the Minister replies to the many questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, she will be able to say what discussions she has been having with the Royal Thai Government about this and whether she has urged them, as my noble friend Lord Chan said earlier to ratify the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and along with that the 1967 protocol.
All of us want to see an end to the depredations and violence inside Burma. The SPDC must appreciate that the world will remain sceptical about its sincerity to bring such change until it welcomes to the table all who have a stake in the country’s future and we will remain critical until they do so. The alternative is for Burma to go on bleeding to death.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, yet again we are deeply indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for reminding us of the appalling violations of human rights which have occurred in Myanmar and for bringing such an impressive weight of first-hand knowledge to your Lordships, which has been reinforced just now by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who also has been many times to the areas where oppression and violence is at its worst. I pay tribute to both of them for the immense courage and dedication they have brought to this task.
Several noble Lords have mentioned the constitutional convention which has been going on for just over a week in Myanmar and which was billed by the SPDC as a key step in its “road map to democracy”, but it has been rubbished by the UN Secretary-General, the European Union and the US as lacking credibility because the leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, and key ethnic group leaders were excluded. This debate provides an opportunity for our own government to say that we do not recognise the legitimacy of this stage-managed process as the first step on the road to anywhere. The regime may have embarked on what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described as a charade-an elaborate charade, I must say-intended to deceive the outside world, but let it be known that none of us are taken in.
Even the neighbouring states, which are so keen to expand their business with Myanmar, do not believe that the military intend by this move to hand over power to civilian government. That well known Liverpool fan, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said he did not feel comfortable about the process, although he still hoped the national reconciliation could be salvaged. That is very strong language by ASEAN standards. The Malaysian Foreign Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, said that the SPDC had to be serious about engaging the NLD, and Indonesia said that it had hoped that the implementation of a road map would be all-inclusive with the involvement of all groups with different ethnic and political orientation. ASEAN foreign Ministers had issued a communiqué last June calling for a peaceful transition to democracy and had offered help in drafting the new constitution. But according to the government-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, one of the objectives of the conference is
“for the tatmadaw [military] to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the state”.
General Khin Nyunt, the Prime Minister and designer of the road map, said at a meeting of the “ceasefire groups”, which had demanded amendments to this objective, that the military wanted to play a political role along with other political groups. These ceasefire groups are former rebels from various ethnic minority communities. They did not accept the fiat issued by Lieutenant General Thein Sein, appointed by the military to chair the convention, that it would adopt the same six political objectives and 104 principles that were observed by the previous convention which had been so abruptly terminated by the regime in 1996, on the grounds that to do so would contradict the idea of the Union of Burma built on unity, equality and self-government. The participation by the military, they observed, was not in accordance with democracy, nor was it in keeping with the people’s wishes. This was the view of minority groups which had made peace with the regime.
The UN special rapporteur, Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, noted that the three bodies which had been set up to prepare the reconvening of the national convention did not contain any representatives of the ethnic minorities. It was apparent that for the convention itself-for the photograph I saw-they managed to recruit a few stooges from ethnic minorities, but they were certainly not representative. As the report just published by Amnesty International on the Rohingya shows, the reality for that particular group of about 1 million people is that their very existence is denied because they are deemed not to be members of an ethnic group, they are ineligible for citizenship and thus presumably also for participation in the convention.
At the beginning of the 1990s there were about a quarter of a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Although most of those people subsequently returned in a repatriation programme sponsored by the UNHCR in 1994 and 1995, we questioned the voluntary nature of the returns at the time. Now there are reports of coercion being used against the 23,000 who remained in the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh. Médecines Sans Frontières, which blew the whistle on a previous occasion, says it had 550 complaints of intimidation of these refugees during 2003 from people who were still afraid to return. Since it would appear that once again the UNHCR is alleged to be providing inadequate protection for these people, and since the UK is a member of Excom, the governing council of UNHCR, we should demand an independent investigation of the situation in those two camps to make sure that the returns are purely voluntary.
It is important that we should be seen to stand up for the rights of this particular minority, which is Muslim, as has been mentioned. It is sometimes alleged that Europe and the US are less interested in the human rights of Muslims, and we must demonstrate that our concerns are just as great for the rights of all oppressed peoples, whatever their religion.
The Karen National Union has been mentioned. It has been engaged in armed struggle against the state in support of its demand for a federal union of nationalities since 1950. It boycotted the convention. The Karen is the largest minority-perhaps 5 million people out of a total population 42.5 million. Therefore, to ignore them is a fatal mistake on the part of the regime. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy won the second largest number of seats in the 1990 Parliament and it too is boycotting the convention, in common with the United Nationalities Alliance.
Those political parties, together with the NLD, represent over 90 per cent of the seats won in the 1990 Parliament. If there was a genuine transition to democracy, there would have to be proper mechanisms of consultation which would involve people on the ground, rather than a closed meeting of 1,000 or so hand-picked delegates, closely supervised by the military and told when to get their hair cut and exactly how they were to behave in the convention. If they had agreed to participate, all those parties together would have been allocated less than 1 per cent of the convention membership.