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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Human Rights in South East Asia

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tom Levitt, the MP for High Peak constituency, invited Meg to give a talk in Buxton about the UK Government’s work in relation to human rights in South East Asia. He invited members of the local Amnesty International groups and concerned individuals.


Thank you for coming along this evening.


It’s good to be here in Buxton. I understand from Tom Levitt that many of you are active members of Amnesty International and are keen to know about the work the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does on human rights.


I will mainly talk on Burma, and how the situation has developed over the last six months. Tom tells me you support a number of prisoners of conscience in Laos, so I’ll say a little about our contact with that country as well. Finally, I’ll outline the range of work we do on human rights.


Extraordinary pictures

Last September and early October the situation in Burma dominated our TV and newspaper front pages - the extraordinary pictures of monks and Burmese citizens showing incredible bravery in standing up against the military regime. We saw those same monks and citizens suffering appalling violence, including TV footage of the shooting dead of a Japanese journalist.


That was followed by mass arrests, invasion of monasteries by the army, beatings, suppression of any chance to show that the Burmese people wanted political change. The military regime tried to shut down the opportunities for the true story of what was happening to come out. They have had some success, coupled with the inevitable media focus moving to other more recent crises such as Kenya and Pakistan there is the danger of forgetting about Burma.


We have been working so that does not happen. The events of last year provided the best opportunity for nearly 20 years to try and achieve some change, a move to a more democratic society. To have any hope of doing that we need the international interest that the protests of autumn created, and crucially the sense of moral outrage that was articulated around the world following the brutal crackdown.


I will outline what the UK Government has been engaged on to date, and then set out how we now see the situation and how we proceed.  


The UK has taken a leading position in the international effort on Burma. We have been engaged in extensive lobbying and negotiations for strong and co-ordinated international effort to secure reconciliation and reform.


UN central to the process

The role of the United Nations is central to this international effort. We believe that there are key countries that need to get firmly behind the UN Secretary General’s ‘Good Offices’ mission and the UN-led efforts to facilitate inclusive national reconciliation. We were encouraged that the UN Secretary General’s ‘Group of Friends on Burma’ convened for the first time on 19th December. This group is there to monitor progress, and comprises a number of countries from the Security Council and regional neighbours of Burma.


The 11 October UN Presidential Statement called the Burmese Government to:

  • create the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue,
  • release all political prisoners and remaining detainees,
  • co-operate fully with Mr Gambari and consider seriously his recommendations,
  • take all necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights issues that are the concern of its people, and
  • work towards a de-escalation of the situation and a peaceful solution. 

The Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, briefed the Security Council on 17th January.  The Security Council subsequently issued a press statement:

  • supporting Gambari’s efforts,
  • reaffirmed the Security Council’s demands of 11th October and regretted the slow rate of progress towards meeting them, and
  • underlined the importance of a further visit to Burma by Gambari.  

Professor Gambari again visited Burma last week. The regime had tried to delay a further visit to April, but with pressure from the international community their wish was resisted. However, the content of the visit was extremely disappointing and indicates the regime are becoming more resistant to international pressure. He was denied access to key figures in the regime, and while he met Aung San Suu Kyi, there was no progress in her situation. I understand he was given a copy of the proposed constitution that the military regime have produced, but this is not yet public.


Deeply flawed process

The Burmese regime announced a few weeks ago that they would hold a referendum on this proposed constitution in May, with elections schedule for 2010. The regime’s intentions are clear but the process as currently conceived is deeply flawed. It is widely understand that it will rule out the involvement of anybody in the political process who is or has been married to a foreigner. This is a clear attempt to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi. Her statement of 8th November indicated that she is willing to work with all parties to address the countries challenges, but the military are showing no signs of reciprocating.


We continue to encourage countries in the region with influence on the Burmese regime to keep up the pressure for reconciliation and reform. To this end the Prime Minister raised Burma with Chinese President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao and with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his recent visits. We believe that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) collectively, and its individual member states, have a key role to play in pursuing reform in their fellow member state, Burma.


Whilst on Ministerial visits to the region I have extensively lobbied a number of the neighbouring ASEAN countries, as well as others who may have influence over the Burmese regime. In November I attended the ASEAN-EU summit and had a number of meetings with Foreign Ministers to press the case for concerted action. I also met Ibrahim Gambari to get first hand his reaction following his visit to Burma, and I have been in regular contact with him since then.


A model for Burma?

While ASEAN itself remains relatively uninvolved as they adopt an approach of non interference, the positions of the individual countries are different. Just a couple of weeks ago I visited Thailand following their return to democracy following elections in December of last year. I met a number of Ministers, including their Foreign Minister who indicated Thailand will be urging Burma to respond to the concerns of the international community. Indonesia similarly believe that their experience of moving from military dictatorship to elected government could be a model for Burma.


The UK Government welcomed the findings from the visit to Burma of UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a unanimous Resolution which urged the Burmese to implement his recommendations. We hope he will be able to make an early follow-up visit to complete his investigations. 


The EU has formally adopted extended sanctions on Burma including the prohibition of the import of timber, metals, minerals and precious and semi-precious stones, and an investment ban in these sectors.  We are ready to establish further restrictive measures if we see no, or limited, progress. There is anecdotal evidence that the sanctions are dissuading foreign investors in the country.


The current situation is difficult. We can argue about the different strengths and weaknesses of sanctions versus engagement. So far neither has achieved the changes we’ve been seeking. If the regime fails to take significant steps towards establishing a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with the opposition under UN auspices, we must consider additional steps at both the UN and the EU to bring pressure to bear.


Conversely, if a process of change begins, we are ready to support economic initiatives that bring the international community and International Financial Institutions together in support of a recovery plan for Burma. This would be strictly conditional on genuine and irreversible progress towards democracy.


In the meantime, the UK is a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. UK has doubled its aid to Burma from 9m to 18m per annum to meet Burma’s urgent humanitarian needs. This will help ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer because of the actions of the regime.


As I said, there is evidence that the Burmese regime now believes it can continue as it did and that the processes it has announced are sufficient to hold back international pressure. There is also good evidence that the situation in Burma is not the same as it was before. We must continue to do all we can to work for change and to support the brave people of Burma.



The promotion of human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, is one of the Foreign Office’s strategic objectives. It is therefore of concern that the Lao government detains dissidents on charges which run counter to the internationally accepted standards of human rights. Our embassy in Bangkok (which is accredited to Laos) monitors the situation. The Ambassador raises human rights issues regularly on his visits, the latest being in October 2007. Additionally, the EU mission in Vientiane monitors human rights developments and religious freedom in Laos.


Our government contacts with the Lao government are limited, but we do raise our human rights concerns either in bilateral contacts, or through the EU. We regularly underline the importance we attach to the protection of human rights in our contacts with all the ASEAN states.


Lao record on Human Rights perceived as poor mainly because of the treatment of Hmong and Christians.


The Hmong are a minority hill tribe who are generally treated with suspicion by the Lao government (following their collaboration with the US during the Vietnam war).  The Hmong have been emigrating to the US over the last 3 decades, mainly via Thailand. There are international concerns, shared by the UNHCR, regarding the treatment received by the Hmong currently being deported on an irregular basis from Thailand a group of 31 on 28 May, 163 on 9 June 2007.  I raised the issue with the Thai interior minister when I visited two weeks ago.


There is no clear evidence that there is systematic or organised Lao central government persecution of Christian groups. Laos has admitted that local officials do abuse their positions and are overzealous in their implementation of Decree 92. Laos has taken steps to inform its officials and promote understanding between local officials and religious groups.  The situation has improved in recent years, but foreigners are not permitted to proselytise and there are continued reports of abuse of Christians in the media.


Human Rights

Human rights issues form an integral part of work done around the world by the Foreign Office and in our dealings within international bodies. This includes individual cases of concern, but also institutional problems such as concerns with prisons or justice system. As well as lobbying countries on these issues, our missions overseas often choose to use money for local programmes to support projects that improve human rights. Examples I have seen, are the development of improved court processes in a region of Mexico, and the development of a modern prison system in the Dominican Republic.


The UK has two formal human rights dialogues, with Russia and China. Beyond raising human rights concerns with other countries in a less formal bilateral way, we’re also involved in the EU’s human rights dialogues. There are a whole range of these in different formats. To give you some examples:

  • the EU has formal self-standing dialogues with Russia, China and Iran. The Iranian one has been suspended for a few years now,
  • it has human rights elements to other, wider political dialogues, under a range of regional relationships. For example Euromed, (countries of southern Mediterranean and Middle East), African countries under the Cotonou Agreement. 

The objectives of dialogues are broadly the same throughout:

  • to have frank discussions of human rights issues and concerns,
  • to share relevant experience and best practice, and
  • to raise individual cases of concern. This is usually the most controversial element, and some dialogue partner countries don’t agree to it. 

Thank you for listening. I’m happy to take questions and comments. 

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