Why Sanctions On The Burmese Military Need To Be Strengthened; Why Those Responsible For Crimes Against Humanity – Against Rohingya and Kachin – Need To Be Bought To Justice; and Why, As Basic Freedoms Are Eroded In Burma, Hopes Of Progress Are Being Dashed
May 1st 2019 House of Lords
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I am very happy to support the four SIs before your Lordships’ House, and welcome the way in which the Minister introduced them.
I am vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Burma, a founder of the Jubilee Campaign and served as a patron of Karenaid.
When I took my seat in your Lordships’ House in 1997, the then Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Weatherill—one of my two sponsors— who had distinguished wartime service in Burma, encouraged me to take an interest in the plight of the Karen. He introduced me to our late and very much missed colleague, Viscount Slim, whose family had so many historic associations with Burma. Viscount Slim encouraged me to support Prospect Burma, the charity he established, and to take these issues seriously.
I travelled to Burma and entered the Karen State, illegally on two occasions, and visited the refugee camps where, to this day, there are more than 100,000 refugees from the Karen communities; some families have been there since the 1940s and 1950s.
However, it has to be said that the situation in the Karen State significantly improved during the period of transition when the National League for Democracy won the elections in Burma and started to have some say over the governance of the country.
But it has become very clear in the years that have followed that whatever hopes we had for progress and fundamental change in Burma—not least because of the role that Aung San Su Kyi, we felt, would be able to play— that they have been dashed.
I was able to go to Naypyidaw, the capital city of Burma, and met with Daw Suu.
I specifically raised with her what I had seen the day before in a village where Buddhists and Muslims had lived together alongside one another in harmony and peaceful coexistence for generations. The previous night the madrassa in the village had been burnt to the ground.
I was grateful to the Foreign Office official who accompanied me. We took evidence and gave it to Aung San Suu Kyi. I raised the issue of what was happening to the Rohingya, and latterly, ,the Kachin, and other groups among the many ethnicities in Burma who were clearly increasingly suffering. What has been happening to the Rohingya ever since does not need to be rehearsed at any length with your Lordships. Around 1 million Rohingya are in camps, adding to the 44,000 people around the world who, according to UNHCR figures, are displaced every single day. That is creating untold misery, whether for those who take to the sea or for those who try to cross the borders into Bangladesh and have now been displaced for what is approaching years, with very little progress made to establish their rights to citizenship or to deal with the fundamental issues that led to them fleeing in the first place.
The Minister says that sanctions are a key element of our policy as a way of putting pressure on the military authorities in Burma who have brought this sad situation to pass. I agree that they are a tool in the kit, but one has to ask whether, by themselves, they are actually achieving a great deal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to be applauded for being the most rigorous of departments in European Union countries in enforcing the arms embargo. We have one of the best records, and that should be said. But let us be clear about what these sanctions actually do. Apart from the arms embargo, they only amount to a ban on some 14 military and security personnel in Burma going on holiday to European Union member states. When we think of that as a response to crimes against humanity and what may even be approaching genocide—a point I shall come back to in a moment—it is, to coin a phrase used in a note I received only this morning from Burma Campaign UK, “pretty pathetic”.
It is certainly disproportionate, and I remind the Minister of his reply to a Question I tabled on 19 June last year. He rightly said:
“The Foreign Secretary has been clear that ethnic cleansing has taken place in Rakhine, and that the violence of August and September 2017 may even constitute genocide, though that would be a determination for an international court to make”.
On 26 June, I pressed the same issue with his noble friend Lady Fairhead, given that trade is central to the question of sanctions. On 12 June I had asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, whether the Government planned to issue official guidance to companies not to engage in any form of business with companies owned by the Burmese military. The reply from the noble Baroness simply did not accord with the sort of words used by both the Foreign Secretary and the noble Lord speaking for the Foreign Office. The noble Baroness said:
“DIT continues to support trade with Burma as an important part of driving mutual prosperity”.
Who is it that we are driving mutual prosperity with? We are talking about the Tatmadaw, the military junta. They are the people responsible for what has happened in Rakhine, for what is happening to the Kachin people, and for many of the depredations of which we are all too well aware. I asked whether the Government planned to make a public statement of support for a UN mandated global arms embargo against Myanmar. The reply from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who dealt with that aspect, was:
“The Government continues to assess that there is insufficient support at present for a UN Security Council Resolution instituting a global arms embargo for Burma”.
Perhaps I may press the noble Lord again today as to whether that remains Her Majesty’s Government’s position and whether sometimes, even if you know you are going to be defeated—I say this for those of us who have spent a great part of our lives being defeated—there are moments when it is right to take a stand and to put people on the spot. If we are saying, for instance, that representatives of the People’s Republic of China would veto such a resolution, let them do so and let us demonstrate the difference between their values and ours. Sometimes, I get frustrated that we use this line of argument about winning and losing. We have also used it in connection with places like North Korea, which has been described by the UN as a state without parallel when it comes to human rights violations, and in the case of Myanmar. We are saying that we will not take Resolutions forward because we think that others will oppose or veto them. Well, let them do so.
Post Brexit, we no longer have to be mute in our response. The Government frequently say that we cannot speak out of line with our European Union neighbours—a point alluded to in a positive way by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—and when we can speak together we should always do so. However, this is used as a double-edged weapon when questions are raised about why we do not ensure that our colleagues in Europe do more about European Union sanctions. The Government say that the discussions are confidential and that they require consensus before the sanctions are toughened up. When this is pressed further, you find out from, for instance, a statement from Burma Campaign UK that the policy is still based on the assessment made of conditions on the ground in 2012-13 and that there is a “three-way split” in the European Union. Some countries work together on a human rights-based approach; others want trade issues to be paramount. But the,
“European Commission/External Action Service has largely been following its own agenda, at times in direct contradiction of what EU member states have agreed”.
These positions do not therefore reflect the position of Her Majesty’s Government. All these divisions in approach play, in my view, into the hands of the military junta, the Tatmadaw, in Burma. The stated priorities of the European Union—peace, democracy, development and trade—are right, but by anyone’s reckoning, Burma is in default on all those things. Surely that alone should be grounds for a fundamental review of sanctions Policy.
There was never a genuine transition to democracy. The 2008 constitution in Burma is not democratic and the military has not allowed for the fundamental changes that were hoped for and worked for. Military committees regularly take decisions about the future of Burma, rather than civil society, and they carry out human rights violations with impunity. Media freedom and freedom of expression are declining while the number of political prisoners is growing. The peace process is stalled and conflict has increased. A policy based on the realities of today and not those of 2012, on what will happen post Brexit and what we will do about a United Nations-mandated global arms embargo on Burma, are the issues I put to the Minister.
I hope that when he responds, he will be able to say something about them.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have again contributed to a very practical and focused discussion…
If I may digress for a moment, it was a huge privilege recently to mark the 40 years in Parliament of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been a strong promoter of human rights over many years. I pay tribute to him and put on record my thanks for being such an advocate for human rights over a number of years. The contribution he made today underlines the intense focus, detail and sensitivity he brings to this subject. I look forward to working with him and, indeed, all noble Lords on these important issues.