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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Debate on Burma

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The House of Commons held a debate on Burma on the 29th October 2007, Meg’s closing speech is below.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): This has been an excellent and important debate. We have rightly heard a lot of anger and passion expressed, as well as concerns from both sides of the House and hon. Members from all parties pressing for change. Many powerful speeches have described the situation, none more so than those of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks).


My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) related this issue to what is happening at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and that is enormously important, because parliamentarians across the world should be talking about this. Last week, I visited Singapore’s Parliament and I was reassured to hear its parliamentarians asking their Foreign Minister many questions about the situation in Burma. I am also told by the Malaysian Foreign Minister, whom I met in the UK last week, that the same thing is happening in the Malaysian Parliament.


An instructive exchange took place last week at the UN General Assembly Third Committee. The special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, gave an initial briefing on the recent crackdown and his assessment made for grim listening. In response, the Burmese delegation said that the country had returned to “normalcy.” The truth, of course, is anything but that. Thousands remain detained in appalling conditions; despite the relaxation of the curfew, night-time arrests continue; and the show trials have begun.


This debate has been useful in underlining how strongly this House, and indeed this country as a whole, feels about the ongoing situation. It has sent a clear signal to the Burmese regime and the Burmese people that we will not forget and we will not turn away.


I pay tribute to the very many public campaigns, both here and abroad, that are keeping Burma high on the international agenda. A number of hon. Members have referred to them. The plight of the Burmese people has united people within the Government and across UK-based and global non-governmental organisations in an unprecedented way. It is vital that we keep up the momentum.


The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) rightly recognised the work done by our ambassador and his staff in Rangoon, and I, too, pay tribute to the enormously important role that they are playing. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have a long and deep knowledge of Burma and the Burmese people. I have therefore not been at all surprised at the quality of analysis that we have heard tonight, and I will seek to respond to as many of the points that have been made as possible.


In response to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I shall outline the next steps that we would envisage in a reconciliation process in Burma. The regime needs to establish a genuine process of national reconciliation, including maintaining regular contacts with Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her state-appointed interlocutor; releasing from custody key opposition figures, so that Aung San Suu Kyi can consult them; and fully opening the door to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and allowing him to stay in the country as long as he needs to do so and, if he wants to, to establish a permanent presence there.


Hon. Members were right to identify that, although the vast majority of Burmese people are denied the most basic human rights, it is the ethnic groups, particularly those in the conflict and border areas, who suffer worst of all. The reports almost beggar belief: villages destroyed, women systematically raped, prisoners tortured, children forced into the army and civilians used as human minesweepers.


As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said, any political process will need fully to involve those ethnic groups, which make up nearly a third of Burma’s population. Their role will be as central to reconciliation as that of the pro-democracy civil opposition. They are unlikely to embrace any political agreement that does not incorporate the demands broadly shared across all 120 separate ethnic groups: the protection of cultural identity, the equitable control of natural resources and a degree of political autonomy at state level. Ensuring that the interests of ethnic minorities are properly engaged will be vital if stability is to be maintained in a democratic Burma. I had the opportunity to meet some Karen refugees in Sheffield on Friday when I was in my constituency, and I heard directly from them how they feel that it is important that their situation is recognised in any future reconciliation.


All of us, including regional neighbours, have genuine and understandable concerns about the future stability of Burma. We must acknowledge those concerns, and both the UN and the parties will need to take them into account in designing a genuinely inclusive political process. But at the same time, it becomes increasingly obvious that the status quo is unsustainable, so it should be ever more apparent that regional stability and prosperity is best served by a managed process of political reform in Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged, the Burmese military will have an important, continuing role to play in a democratic Burma, given the likely challenges to internal security and nation building that will remain, but the military dictatorship must end.


Many hon. Members have, not surprisingly, referred to the roles of China and India—Burma’s large neighbours—and the ASEAN countries. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to the need for those concerns to be raised with counterparts at the highest level, and I should like to reassure him that that has been done. The Prime Minister has had an extensive personal involvement, talking to his counterparts in China and Indian. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to his counterparts. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown has been to India and has spoken to his counterparts, and I have spoken to delegations from China, India, including a Minister, and Thailand, as well as from many ASEAN nations in the past week or two.


We believe that it is imperative that all countries in the region should turn the strong rhetoric, which is welcome, into concerted action. They should speak out against the regime, not offer the generals financial or other support and end arms sales and military co-operation. It is clear that, for ASEAN in particular, to turn a blind eye to such a repressive Government in its midst and in the year of its 40th anniversary would jeopardise the whole process of democratisation and the development of the region and damage its credibility.


The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked what Ministers sought to achieve by their visits to the region and to China and India. We want to continue to support the positive steps taken by Governments in the region and to point out that the UK considers the matter of the utmost importance. It will remain high on our agenda. Things must change; the Burmese regime must be brought to understand that it cannot continue as it has done. There must be a process of reconciliation and a move to a more democratic situation in Burma, and that needs to start now. We welcome the positive steps that have been taken and the positive statements that have been made, but they are not the end of the matter. More needs to happen and things need to move forward.


The right hon. Gentleman asked whether any UN computers with information about democracy campaigners had been seized. We have received no complaints or reports from the UN about the seizure of equipment by the Burmese authorities, but we would strongly deplore any such action.


Many questions were asked about aid and trade. I shall first respond to issues raised about the proposed financial support that we would put in place should the Burmese regime take the steps towards the reform process we want. I assure Members that the UK and the US share the same objectives on Burma—to bring about peaceful political change, the restoration of democracy, national reconciliation and full respect for human rights. The Prime Minister’s suggestion arose from his discussions with other leaders about the need for a comprehensive approach to the crisis, balancing targeted pressure on the regime with a plan for possible economic recovery conditional on political progress.

We are giving the regime a stark choice. There can be sanctions and increased sanctions or the regime can take steps towards reform, which the international community might support with financial proposals. That is an appropriate approach. It is right that the regime understands that, as well as applying sanctions, we want to hold out an offer of progress should it take the steps that we all want to see.


Members spoke at great length about the aid provided by the Department for International Development. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the priorities in his speech and responded to interventions about the proposals. Members should bear in mind that, in 2002, the programme was £2 million and that over the past five years the amount has increased to £9 million, making the UK the third-largest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development donor. My right hon. Friend set out the expected increase over the next comprehensive spending review period. There will be a further CSR before 2013 and the International Development Committee has set out what it wants to see in that period. The current commitment does not extend to the end of the period.


John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Again and again, I go back to the issue of cross-border aid, support for democracy organisations and the need for explicit commitments in respect of both. This has been a very good debate, but as someone who has long admired, and continues to admire, both the erudition and intellect of the Secretary of State for International Development, may I point out that he should not underestimate the suspicion among some of the border aid groups and democracy organisations towards officials on the ground in Rangoon whom they regard as indifferent at best and hostile at worst? We need explicit commitments.


Meg Munn: I am informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development admires the hon. Gentleman’s erudition and intellect, too, and is happy to meet him to explore the issue further. Obviously, the whole House is concerned about the issue, and I am sure that we want productive and friendly discussions.


Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Minister says, in reply to our questions, that the budget has gone up from £2 million to £9 million, and will go up to £18 million by 2010 but, with all respect, that does not answer the question that many of us have put: why does Burma receive so little compared to comparable African countries?


Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I was just coming to that.


Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I return to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). At the proposed meeting, which will clearly be governed by feelings of immense affection on both sides, the Secretary of State will need to explain why the case that the Select Committee made in its excellent report is defective and why he will not accept it.


Meg Munn: I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities for the Secretary of State to explore those issues in the meeting, and to discuss the matter with the Select Committee, as he rightly should. The environment in Burma is complex and risky, and there are significant limitations on the ability of potential partners to absorb funds. We work around central Government, so mechanisms for getting funds to schools and clinics are labour-intensive. We must carefully manage the risk that the regime will get undeserved benefits from our programme. Rigorous monitoring is also crucial. It is essential that we can show that our funds have an impact, that we maintain a strong understanding of the political context in which our projects work, and that we ensure rigorous transparency, so that communities understand where support is coming from. We have worked hard to build a strong relationship with opposition groups inside the country, and it is important that we retain their trust through our careful approach to the programme.


The increase that was announced is at a level at which we can be confident that funds can continue to be used and monitored effectively. The expansion of the team based in Rangoon from three to 10 members of staff will give us greater capacity to manage the programme and the risk. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is a listening Secretary of State—we have just been exploring that point—so I am sure that he will seek to respond more fully in a subsequent meeting.


Hon. Members raised the subject of UN action through sanctions, and the question of whether there should be a UN arms embargo. As hon. Members will be aware, an EU arms embargo is already in place. We judge that, at present, there is insufficient support on the Security Council for a UN ban, but we have been discussing the possibility with partners in New York.


Hon. Members also wanted to know about the position of the EU. I am grateful for their welcome for the steps taken so far and for the response from across the EU to the proposals that the UK wanted to introduce. The additional measures agreed on 15 October are welcome. The EU agreed, with strong UK encouragement, to consider additional measures if there was insufficient political process and engagement with the United Nations. Together with our partners, we will discuss when and how to draw up and implement such measures, including a ban on new investment. I have to tell hon. Members that that is a complex process.


As I will come on to say, we are starting to see some movement from the regime in Burma. We want that to continue, and ensuring the exact right amount of pressure and encouragement will be crucial to the process. I feel strongly that we have to manage the process carefully; we have to keep in close contact with people in the region, because as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, we must not miss the current opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since the demonstrations in 1988, and there has not been an opportunity like the present one to get the international community to move forward. Getting the process right, applying the right amount of pressure, getting the right people involved at the right time, sanctions and the threat of sanctions are enormously important. When I spoke to our ambassador in Rangoon this afternoon, he said that the threat of sanctions is sometimes sufficient to achieve movement, so we should not react too quickly, as we are beginning to achieve progress.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Minister said that sanctions can be effective, and sanctions exercised on consumers’ behalf against companies that invest in Burma can be highly effective. If British people knew which British companies engaged in trade or investment that supported that regime, they could bring sanctions against those companies. Why can we not be told which companies are involved?


Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman anticipates a matter that I shall come to shortly. I should like to respond to the issue of overseas territories investment raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). May I clarify the fact that the EU common position on Burma includes a ban on investment or the provision of financial services to certain Burmese state-owned enterprises and to certain sectors? That ban is in force in the UK and in British overseas territories. It is the responsibility of companies incorporated or constituted in British overseas territories to comply with the law. We have seen no evidence that investments covered by the EU common position have been routed through any of the overseas territories. The funds themselves would, in all likelihood, be held in bank accounts outside Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands, as relatively few Bermudan or British Virgin Islands-registered companies hold accounts in the territory.


Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): With luck, the Minister will tell me that I am anticipating a point that she is about to make. So far, she has not addressed the question of whether the Government accept that crimes against humanity have been committed, and whether they intend to do anything to follow up the suggestion from the Opposition that the International Criminal Court should be involved.


Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I will come to that. First, however, I want to deal with all the issues raised about aid and trade.


The value of imports from Burma to the UK halved between 2004 and 2005. As the hon. Member for Cheadle said, in the six months to July 2007, UK imports from Burma were worth £17.1 million and exports totalled £2 million. Commercial confidentiality has been cited as a concern for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Major exports from Burma include marine and agricultural products. As we discussed in relation to EU economic sanctions, we must be careful not to introduce measures that target ordinary producers in Burma. I can reassure hon. Members that the EU common position has resulted in an asset freeze on 380 regime leaders and members of their families. Those assets have already been frozen. UK investment in Burma is negligible, and the figures from the Office for National Statistics on active UK investment show that it is very low. Indeed, the ONS does not have any returns suggesting any UK direct investment as at the end of 2005.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): On commercial confidentiality, all the companies that were involved in South Africa under apartheid were named, and all the reports submitted under EU regulations were open to public scrutiny. Plenty of information was provided that enabled people to boycott South African agricultural produce. There was no perceptibly adverse effect on the wider community, but there was a profound impact on the regime.


Meg Munn: I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and, as I have said, our concern remains that we should have sanctions that target the regime without impacting on ordinary people. The amount in relation to the UK remains small. We are unaware of any major UK-based company operating in Burma. Our ambassador, in his 15 months at post, has not received a single statement of interest from a UK company about investing in Burma, and has come across no British firm operating there. This Government were instrumental in persuading the last two major UK investors, BAT and Premier Oil, to withdraw from Burma, and we have consistently discouraged UK investment.


Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Is the Minister confirming to the House that if any British company approached our ambassador in Burma asking for help with trade with Burma, our ambassador would decline?


Meg Munn: I can confirm that we do not seek to give support to anybody who wishes to invest in Burma.


Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Minister confirm that the Government are not encouraging British tourists to go to Burma, and that those companies in Britain who are still promoting tourism are doing so in a way that is not in the interests of the people of Burma?


Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises another issue in relation to our contact with Burma. I know that there is considerable debate among a range of people as to whether it is appropriate to travel to Burma because that increases the contact with people and therefore reduces isolation and allows people to see what is going on, or whether it supports the regime. The Government do not support any tourism to Burma. We have made clear statements that are in line with the European position in terms of our contacts with the regime, and that is as far as I want to go in my answer on that.


The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked about the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Undoubtedly, large-scale human rights abuses are taking place in Burma. However, it is not yet clear whether those violations constitute genocide or crimes against humanity as understood by international law. There is therefore no current case before the ICJ, but we are in close contact with our international partners and the UN on this, and we will keep it under review.


There are some signs that the regime is beginning to feel the cumulative weight of international pressure. We saw fierce resistance to the Security Council statement and heard sharp complaints about increased international sanctions from the regime. As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has already said, there have been problems with the internal airline, and I believe with one other airline, in terms of their ability to continue operating due to insurance and banking support. I am told that there is every indication that companies and businesses within Burma are themselves very concerned about the situation with regard to existing and threatened sanctions.


We know that Aung San Suu Kyi—as everybody has said, an incredibly brave and courageous woman—has been shown on state television for the first time in years, and the first meeting between Aung Kyi and Aung San Suu Kyi was a welcome, albeit partial and unproven, first step, as indeed was last week’s announcement that the Burmese authorities would grant another visa to Professor Gambari and, for the first time, a visa to Professor Sergio Pinheiro.


More generally, we believe that in such a devoutly Buddhist society, the brutal and humiliating treatment of the monks and the desecration of religious sites has caused deep trauma across Burmese society, including within parts of the Government and military.


Faced with still greater international isolation, even those connected to the regime must realise that their own future, and that of their children, is ill-served by a group of ageing generals who are driving the country relentlessly into the ground. While much of south-east Asia advances into the digital age, Burma is slipping back into the dark ages. However, there is equally no doubt that if there is any relaxation in the pressure that we are exerting on the Burmese regime, it will take the opportunity to consolidate its hold.


If we do not see signs of genuine engagement in a political process, the UN Security Council will need to consider what further measures it must take. We have already begun discussions with our partners about what those might be, including the possibility of a UN arms embargo. There will be a hard balance to strike between maintaining consensus and agreeing the toughest action possible. At the same time, the EU is drawing up a list of further sanctions it could adopt against the Burmese regime, up to and including a ban on new investment should the regime fail to engage constructively with the UN.


John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Before the Minister sits down, will she do two things? First, will she commit to press for an EU-wide ban on the provision of insurance cover? Secondly, in view of the historical significance of securing a debate on the Floor of the House, will she take this opportunity to pay tribute to Yvette Mahon, Mark Farmaner, Anna Roberts and Zoya Phan—the latter may one day be a leader of Burma—because they and their colleagues at the Burma Campaign have worked tirelessly for years to achieve even the prominence that has now been secured for the issue?


Meg Munn: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will talk to our EU partners about all possible appropriate sanctions that will have an effect on the regime, and we will certainly consider the matter that he has raised. I am happy to pay tribute to the people he mentioned. The role of those in the NGO sector, those in society and those in the House in continuing to keep the issue high on the agenda and in the public mind cannot be underestimated. It is only continuing to keep up the pressure that will give us any hope of changing a difficult and entrenched situation.


Today, the House has sent out a clear signal. We are watching and waiting. We will not forget the people of Burma, and the world will judge the regime by its actions.


The full debate is available from:


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