Question: February 28th 2013
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current situation in Burma, with reference to the Kachin, Shan and Rohingya ethnic national peoples.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi):
My Lords, we welcome the direction of reforms in Burma but continue to raise concerns over human rights and ethnic reconciliation. In Kachin state we are encouraged by the recent reduction in fighting and agreement by both sides to pursue political dialogue. We continue to monitor the ceasefire and humanitarian situation in Shan state. In Rakhine state we continue to press the Burmese Government to improve coordination of humanitarian assistance, to ensure security and accountability and to address the issue of Rohingya citizenship.
My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that comprehensive reply, may I highlight the seriousness of the situation? I have just returned from Kachin state where a 17-year ceasefire was broken by the Burmese army. Fighting continues with widespread violations of human rights, including torture, killings, rape and an aerial bombardment causing 75,000 civilians to flee to camps or hide in the jungle. In Shan state, a military offensive caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes, and the Rohingya people have been reduced to conditions of severe destitution and massive displacement.
Therefore, can the Minister give an assurance that Her Majesty’s Government, while welcoming recent reforms, will press the Burmese Government to protect and promote the rights of all ethnic national peoples?
The noble Baroness, as always, comes to these Questions with the most up-to-date information that could possibly be obtained, and I thank her for the enormous work that she does in Burma, as well as in many other places around the world. Our policy is one of constructive engagement on human rights, and ethnic reconciliation is a central part of that. I can assure the noble Baroness and the House that we take the humanitarian challenges in Burma extremely seriously. Indeed, the Minister with responsibility for Burma, Hugo Swire, when he visited that country, travelled to Rakhine state with a view to making representations to the regional governments as well. It is a matter on which we continue to press the Burmese Government and on which our ambassador there is hugely engaged.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead:
My Lords, when the EU common position on Burma is reviewed, as it will be in April, what position will the Government take on the EU sanctions that were suspended on the specific understanding that there would be progress on human rights and democratic reform in Burma? Is it not the case that in many respects human rights violations have significantly increased, especially with the Rohingya and Kachin, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has said? Is it not the case that the Government should therefore support the reintroduction of some of the measures that were suspended, and resist efforts to lift sanctions completely unless and until there is significant progress on these issues?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the sanctions were suspended in April last year, and it was made clear at that stage that they would be lifted only if the Burmese Government was measured positively against the benchmarks set by the Council conclusions of earlier that year. Those benchmarks are that there should be free and fair elections, and that there needed to be progress on political prisoners and ethnic reconciliations. These matters will be discussed again in April this year but, as the noble Baroness is aware, for those sanctions to remain suspended or not to be lifted requires unanimity at the EU level. We in the United Kingdom will be pressing for those measures, those benchmarks, to be tested against the Burmese record.
My Lords, can the Government explain what they are doing to resolve the plight of the Rohingya?
My noble friend raises an important question. The Rohingya have been described as some of the most wretched people because of the way in which they have been abused over many years. They are left in a situation where real questions are being raised by the Burmese Government about their citizenship. The Minister responsible for Burma, Hugo Swire, visited Rakhine and met leaders of the Rohingya community. Last week, I was in Bangladesh and became the first British Minister to visit the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. We are looking at the problem from both sides of the border. Ultimately, however, the issue of citizenship of the Rohingya people is what needs to resolved. There is a history of these people being in Burma for the past 200 years. They now need to be recognised.
My Lords, it has been a great pleasure to see the developing relationship of the UK Government, particularly the Prime Minister, not only with the Burmese Government but with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is incredibly influential in this situation. Will the Minister outline what representations the UK Government have made to Aung San Suu Kyi about the growing concern among nations that are being looked to for aid about the treatment of groups of people who have a different religions background and, particularly in relation to the Rohingya people, those who are of different racial group from the majority population?
I simply repeat what I said earlier. On every occasion, whether it is the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, Hugo Swire or, indeed, Francis Maude, who was there only last year, we have taken the opportunity to raise the issue of minority groups. All communities must deserve rights as Burma moves forward on its democratic journey.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, would the Minister confirm that since 2012, around 5,000 Rohingya Muslim people have been murdered and that many thousands more have disappeared? As she has rightly described, they are living in a system of 21st century apartheid, their citizenship rights having been formally stripped from the constitution. Will she urge the government authorities in Burma to revisit this question and inquire of the UN special rapporteur on religious liberty whether he would be willing to make a visit to the Rohingya people in the Arakan State?
The noble Lord makes an important point. I will be meeting the UN special rapporteur on religious freedom in the next two months. This is certainly a matter that I can raise with him. Ethnic reconciliation is a central part of all discussions that we have with the Burmese Government.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine:
My Lords, going back to Kachin and the conflict there, does the Minister accept that the use of fighter jets to bomb civilian populations is a significant escalation by the Burmese army? While we welcome attempts at a ceasefire again, will the Government urge both the Chinese and Burmese Governments to, first, allow the UNHCR to look at the refugee situation and give humanitarian assistance and, secondly, press for an overall peace settlement for all three ethnic groups? This is a long overdue matter and the civil war has been going on for 60 years. It is time now for a comprehensive peace, rather than just ceasefires that break down.
We are, of course, concerned about the acts of the Burmese Government in Kachin. I can assure my noble friend that we have played our part: we have had experts who were involved in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland visit Burma on a number of occasions to assist with the peacebuilding in Kachin. We are also one of the three members of the peace donor support group, which also assists with peacebuilding. Moreover, we allocated a further £1.5 million in December of last year, bringing our total spending on humanitarian aid in Kachin to £3.5 million. We will continue to press them, and of course, the Chinese Government.