Alok Sharma responds to Urgent Question on human rights in Burma

18th January 2017

Alok Sharma responds to an Urgent Question on human rights in Burma, in particular in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.

Mr Speaker, I know that you care deeply about the situation in Burma and have done much to foster democratic values in that country and to promote relations between the UK and Burma. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for raising this matter. He knows Burma well and has close family connections there.

We have of course been deeply worried by the flare-up of violence in Rakhine state since an attack on police posts on 9 October by unknown assailants—presumed to be Rohingya militants. While we condemn the attack and recognise the right of security forces to carry out security operations to root out the perpetrators, we remain deeply concerned by the conduct of the army in its response. Although restrictions on media, diplomatic and humanitarian access make the facts difficult to ascertain, we have been worried by numerous reports alleging widespread human rights violations in the security response.

British Ministers have directly lobbied Burmese Ministers in response to the escalating violence. The Commonwealth Affairs Minister, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St Johns, raised the issue with the Burmese Defence Minister when she visited Burma in November last year. Specifically, she called for the full and immediate resumption of aid and for an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses. I repeated those calls to the Construction Minister when he visited the UK, also in November. The Burmese Government have now committed to investigating the 9 October attacks, restoring human rights access and investigating allegations of human rights abuses. In practice, however, much aid is still blocked by local authorities reporting to the military, particularly in the areas where security operations are ongoing. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

We are also worried by the recent escalation of conflict in Kachin and Shan states, which has also led to allegations of civilian casualties, the widespread displacement of civilians and human rights abuses. We have raised our concerns about the violence in north-east Burma directly with Burmese Ministers. As I said, we continue to monitor the situation closely. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will visit Burma soon and will reiterate our concerns about such issues.

 

I thank the Minister for that response. The first question I asked in this House was about the situation faced by the Rohingya community in Rakhine state. It is incredibly frustrating to return to the subject nearly two years later, following several worrying reports from Rakhine, northern Shan and Kachin, the last two of which have reportedly involved airstrikes and heavy artillery.

Since that first question, Aung San Suu Kyi has won a remarkable election victory. Although she has a difficult task in keeping the Government together while the military still has such a huge influence, does the Minister agree that friends such as the UK should continue to raise humanitarian issues while so many suffer due to their faith?

Tomorrow, Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, an inter-governmental body of 58 member states, will meet in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Will the Minister join me and more than 40 Myanmar-based civil society organisations in calling today for a truly independent international investigation into that situation, whereby state-sponsored attacks on Rohingya Muslim civilians have escalated in recent months? It is difficult to get accurate information about what is really happening in Rakhine, so in order to get to the truth and beyond the false reports, will the Minister call for full access for independent observers and journalists to villages and displacement camps in Rakhine state?

I have also been informed that Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, who has been on a 12-day monitoring mission to the country, has been denied access by the Government to conflict-affected areas of Shan state. Does the Minister agree that Ms Lee should be allowed to do her job and bring such issues into the open? Finally, when the Foreign Secretary visits Burma this weekend, will he raise the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan, and will he also raise the matter with Burmese MPs and the Speaker of the House of Representatives when the Burmese delegation visits the UK next week? Will he also raise the matter with the Government of Bangladesh to see what more can be done on a humanitarian level for displaced Rohingyas on the border between Burma and Bangladesh?

 

I agree with my hon. Friend, and of course, we are deeply concerned about what is happening in Rakhine state. Yes, it is difficult to get access to verify the facts but, like him, we are extremely concerned about the human rights violations that have been reported and, of course, about the security response.

My hon. Friend raised a number of questions. He asked about UK support for an international commission —I assume a UN-type commission. A UN-led commission of inquiry can be established in one of three ways: by the Secretary-General, by the Security Council or by the Human Rights Council. Establishing an inquiry in that way would require broad international support, which we assess does not exist in the current international environment.

My hon. Friend also asked about the visit of Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur, which I very much welcome. I am aware that she is currently in Burma, and for many years we have supported the annual resolution of the Human Rights Council that mandates her role. We hope that the authorities in Burma will give her full and unimpeded access so that she can conduct a thorough assessment, including of Rakhine. Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to reading her report.

My hon. Friend talked about the overall peace process and particularly about the aid that we are providing. I can confirm that we are providing aid not just in Rakhine but to the refugees in Bangladesh. In our meetings I have urged the Bangladeshi Government not to return refugees to a situation in which they would face harm.

Finally, my hon. Friend made a plea in relation to the Foreign Secretary’s visit. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary will strongly put the case on humanitarian issues from a UK perspective. As far as I am aware, he intends to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the chief of the military.

 

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing it.

For all of us who have campaigned for years for democracy and an end to repression in Myanmar, including many in this House, it is all the more troubling to see evidence that, for all the progress that has been made, the suppression of the majority in Myanmar has been replaced, in far too many cases, with the persecution of minorities. In particular, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was shocking to hear of the recent disappearance of two Kachin Christian leaders, who have apparently been kidnapped in northern Shan state. It is incumbent on the Government, and indeed on the international community as a whole, to press the Myanmar authorities urgently to provide information on their whereabouts and to secure their immediate freedom.

We are also deeply concerned about the continuing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, and particularly about the recent reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that a raft of human rights violations have taken place in recent months, including cases of torture, rape and sexual assault, summary executions and the destruction of mosques and homes.

Upholding human rights should be the driving force of our foreign policy, and we therefore call on the Government to use Britain’s influence to stand up for the rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled and to raise concerns with the authorities in Myanmar as a matter of urgency, including on the persecution and poverty that many people are suffering and on the need for full humanitarian access to all affected areas.

I hope the Minister can tell us today about the representations he has made to his counterparts in Myanmar, particularly on access for the UN-appointed rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, and on how he is planning to ensure that the rights of Myanmar’s people are protected.

 

Having previously discussed the situation with the hon. Lady, I know that she cares very deeply about the humanitarian issues in Burma. There is consensus on these issues on both sides of the House.

The hon. Lady raises the issue of the Kachin pastors. Many Christians live in areas where there is active conflict, notably in Kachin, and we are of course deeply concerned about the disappearance of the two pastors, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng. There is deep concern about their welfare. As she notes, they disappeared on Christmas eve, allegedly after taking journalists to see a recently bombed church. Like her, we urge the Government of Burma to investigate their case immediately and release them.

The hon. Lady asks about the UK Government’s lobbying. I note that the Foreign Secretary will be in Burma soon. He will, of course, make strong representations on behalf of the UK Government. Apart from the representations that I and other Foreign Office Ministers have made, our ambassador has visited north Rakhine in recent months and has lobbied five separate Burmese Ministers on the issue and urged restraint in the security response.

Finally, the hon. Lady talked about humanitarian aid. As she will know, the UK Government are doing an enormous amount to provide aid to this troubled area. We have certainly been the biggest bilateral humanitarian donor in Rakhine, and since 2012 we have provided more than £23 million in humanitarian assistance, including supporting work on sanitation and nutrition for more than 126,000 people.

 

When the Foreign Secretary travels to Burma, he will no doubt wish to discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders the role of the Tatmadaw, whether it is worth our while to continue running courses for them, the efficacy of those courses and whether the Tatmadaw is continuing to block aid from going into some areas. I urge the Minister to in turn urge the Foreign Secretary to travel to Sittwe in Rakhine to see the situation on the ground for himself, talk to the Rohingya and come back to this House to update us on whether there is now real evidence that outside forces are stirring up the Rohingya in that part of Burma.

 

My right hon. Friend is an expert, having been a Minister with responsibility for this part of the world when he was at the Foreign Office. I have already set out the key individuals whom the Foreign Secretary plans to meet, and we all look forward to his response when he returns to the House.

My right hon. Friend talks about the training we may be doing with the military in Burma, and I make it clear that any training we undertake has nothing to do with combat training; it is to do with humanitarian work and English language training. Our assessment is that building those links is a worthwhile thing to be doing.

On the Tatmadaw, my right hon. Friend knows full well that Aung San Suu Kyi has a position in the Government but that the army has a role to play. Clearly it is the army that is acting in the areas where there are humanitarian issues.

 

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important urgent question. The Minister has expressed concern about the disappearance of the two ethnic Kachin Baptist leaders who were apparently forcibly disappeared over Christmas, and he has also called for unfettered access for the United Nations special rapporteur. Can he confirm that both those matters have already been specifically raised with the Burmese ambassador in London, and that the Foreign Secretary will raise both specific matters in his talks in Burma next week?

The Minister rather sidestepped the question on action through the UN by saying that the Government’s opinion is that there is not sufficient consensus at the present time to take forward such action. Can he go further? When the special rapporteur returns and reports to the UN, will he undertake on behalf of the Government to use every possible effort to build consensus on an urgent and independent United Nations commission as a result of the special rapporteur’s visit? Will the Government commit to trying to build that consensus, as opposed to merely remarking that it does not exist?

 

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the UK Government’s representations to the Burmese Government. As I noted, we have made representations at both ministerial and ambassadorial level. He talks about the representations that the Foreign Secretary will make. I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary is aware of what is said in this House, as I am sure he already is. He cares very deeply about Burma, and the fact that he is going out there very soon should give the right hon. Gentleman a great deal of comfort.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the UN, and I stated the position on that: we support the UN special rapporteur. He will know that we have also been supportive of the Human Rights Council, but this is about building multilateral support for actions, and that is where we seek to work together with other partners.

 

Years ago, during the time of the Labour Government, I organised a debate in Westminster Hall about the persecution of the Karen people, which has been a long-standing serious situation. Those people gave us unstinting loyalty during the second world war, and they have been repaid with persecution ever since. What further steps can the Government take on that persecution, to ensure that the human rights of the Karen are protected?

 

Collectively in this House, we all care deeply about human rights, wherever they may be being affected. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me, I would be happy to take up that specific issue, but I make the general point that human rights absolutely matter to this House, to the Government and to the British people, and will continue to be at the forefront of everything the Foreign Office does.

 

Undoubtedly there is reason for concern at the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority. I understand that Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she welcomes the international community’s support and efforts in seeking peace and stability, and in building better relations with communities. I hope the Foreign Secretary will focus on that during his visit. The UN special rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, is on her fifth information-gathering visit, so does the Foreign Secretary intend to speak to her?

 

On whether the Foreign Secretary will be speaking to the special rapporteur, I will make sure he is aware of the right hon. Lady’s request. On our ongoing dialogue, she will know that the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which is led by Kofi Annan, was put in place last year and is due to produce a report in August. I have had a number of conversations with Kofi Annan about the work that is ongoing, so I hope she will appreciate that that is a clear example of what the British Government are doing to engage with the international community and others in Burma.

 

Given the scale of abuse by the Tatmadaw and a particularly uncharacteristically militant form of Buddhism, does the Minister accept that the unwelcome radicalisation of the Rohingya is only a question of time, that that time is short and that this needs to be treated with the appropriate sense of urgency?

 

We of course bring a sense of urgency to all the work that we try to do, particularly on human rights, but this process has, sadly, been ongoing for some time. It is about continuing to work together with international partners, non-governmental organisations and others in Burma, and continuing to make those representations. As I said, the Foreign Secretary hopes to meet the chief of the army when he is in Burma, and I hope we will have an opportunity to make our points clearly to the Tatmadaw then.

 

I welcome the Minister’s indication about the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear when he is in Burma that the interest of this House extends to seeing not only a continued transition in rule, but a real transformation in rights? The best way for that to begin is through a credible investigation at an international level, with reliable adherence to any robust recommendations that that investigation brings.

 

On the investigations, I have said that the commission established and led by Kofi Annan will, we hope, set out clearly its thoughts. It is an independent commission and we support it.

 

May I impress upon the Government the need to give attention to the unfolding tragedy in Kachin, with reports last week of 4,000 internally displaced people fleeing for their lives, particularly women and children, who have been moved on before and who need to get unfettered access to humanitarian aid? May I also draw attention again to the situation of the two Baptist pastors? Ministers surely must do all they can, with the UN special rapporteur there, to get the information that the family members need and not to accept the apparent approved response, with the absence being described as “enforced disappearance”, which is contrary to all international human rights.

 

My hon. Friend is a great champion of human rights, particularly those of minorities around the world. He puts his point about the pastors eloquently, and we will continue to make representations. On specific aid, I mentioned that the UK has provided £18 million in essential humanitarian and healthcare assistance, which of course has been in Kachin and the north Shan state, over the past four years.

 

Will the Minister confirm what discussions he and his Department have had with other Governments about getting medical assistance into the area? Will he update us on that?

 

On discussions with other Governments, our ambassador of course has discussions locally in Burma with counterparts. On the support we are giving, I talked about some of the numbers on the amount of money we are spending and what it is being spent on. We seek to work with NGOs and others on the ground to make sure that funds are getting through to where they are needed in these troubled areas.

 

I am sure the Minister will agree that the progress in seeing improved human rights has been painfully slow in Burma since the elections, which we had hoped would bring far more, given the flawed constitutional position that still exists. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Will the Minister update the House on what engagement we are having with regional partners to try to build the type of international consensus we need for further action through the UN?

 

As I have said on a number of occasions, we discuss these matters with a range of actors, including international partners. Right now, Kofi Annan’s independent commission is leading work in this area. We will continue to have a dialogue with Mr Annan and we look forward to his report.

 

I join the Minister in paying tribute to your interest in and work on behalf of the Burmese people over many years, Mr Speaker. We all welcome Burma moving out from the long dark years of military dictatorship, but we also hoped it would put behind it communal and religious conflict, too. Will the Minister therefore make it very clear to the Burmese authorities that their welcome re-entry into the international community will not be helped if they fail to protect minorities, particularly the Rohingya community?

 

The right hon. Gentleman of course makes a number of important points. On the work that is going on and what has happened since the election, he will be aware that the new Burmese Government released 300 political prisoners, began the abolition of draconian laws, initiated the peace process that I talked about and established the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by Kofi Annan. We have to give a huge amount of credit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the work she has done in leading Burma to this stage. I agree with him that we need to keep pressing on humanitarian issues and to make sure that the rights of minorities are respected. However, as he will know, the military remain heavily involved in Burmese politics and they wrote the 2008 constitution, which grants them 25% of seats in Parliament, unelected.

 

On having an independent UN investigation into this matter, the Minister said initially that there needs to be a consensus. Then he said he would work together with others for a consensus. Can he go a step further than the answer he gave to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and say that rather than working with others, the UK will lead the way in building that consensus, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council?

 

May I give a specific example of the UN work we are doing and supporting? Several UN mechanisms are already in place, including, as I said earlier, the Human Rights Council resolution, which we support. It mandates the role of the UN special rapporteur on Burma, who is currently visiting the country, and we look forward to her report. As I have said already, we call for full and unimpeded access for her so that she can carry out her work.

 

Given the range of access issues that UN staff and missions have had in recent times, what discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had with its counterparts in the Security Council to ensure that UN staff are given full and proper access to areas of concern, wherever in the world they may be?

 

We discuss issues of access to humanitarian rights with counterparts in the UN, as well as on a more bilateral basis. I assure the hon. Lady that we keep these issues at the forefront of our work, and will continue to make representations of the type she is pressing for.

 

Parliament was rightly moved by the house arrest of a single exceptional lady, but as it has not been mentioned during this urgent question, may I mention the situation of the Rohingya people? Hundreds are being attacked and many are being murdered. Their villages are being systematically burned or destroyed. Many are being sold into slavery with the complicity of Burmese authorities—the very authorities that treat the Rohingya as a non-people. My hon. Friend the Minister has avoided the challenges of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who said that it is not sufficient for the Government to co-operate; they need to lead UN support if the reports are true. So, for the third time, will the Minister say whether, if the reports are true and the Foreign Secretary comes back from Burma validating all that has been said, the Government will take up leadership at the UN to ensure that there is broad support and a resolution to follow?

 

I pray forgiveness if I have given the impression that I am dodging the questions, because that has not been my intention at all. The point I have been making is that we have to work together with partners to achieve an outcome. That is what we seek to do in this particular case, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that.

 

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and I have been approached by constituents who want to provide help directly to Rohingya communities that need it, in both Burma and Bangladesh. The Minister has talked about access for NGOs; what routes are currently open for the delivery of help where it is needed, and what advice can he give to those who want to help people who are currently suffering such extreme problems?

 

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. The area we are discussing is very troubled, and the humanitarian help that is getting through has been quite limited in some parts. If he would like to meet outside of the House to discuss the specifics and who his constituents are, I would be very happy to see whether we can take the matter forward.

 

In response to a written question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the Foreign Office revealed that it had spent £300,000 and more on training the Burmese army. Would that money not be better spent on exposing and verifying human rights violations?

 

This question has come up before, but I can again confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Defence does not provide combat training. The UK is providing educational training to the Burmese military in the form of programmes delivered by the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom on the role of the military in a democracy, with leadership and England language training. We really do continue to believe that that is a useful thing to do to engage the next generation of the Burmese army.

 

Like other Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the treatment of the Rohingya community, which is often described as the world’s most persecuted religious minority. They struggle to understand why, after years of persecution, the brutality continues. The Minister talked about the importance of building consensus in the United Nations; will he elaborate on the barriers to consensus and what our diplomatic efforts with partners around the world can do to break them down?

 

Successive UK Governments have raised many long-standing humanitarian and other issues around the world, and we will of course continue to raise this one. I return to the point I made earlier: at the end of the day, this is also about engagement in Burma, particularly with the armed forces and armed services, and the Foreign Secretary hopes to meet the army chief. We can provide humanitarian support and support to the elected Government, and we can continue to have conversations, both in Burma and through our multilateral partners, to ensure that we keep this matter at the forefront, not only internationally but in Burma.

 

I commend you, Mr Speaker, for your interest in this subject and for bringing it to the forefront of our minds each and every day inside and outside the House.

The Minister will be aware that in the past few months the Burmese Government have introduced four new laws on race and religion. Those laws were made to protect but, unfortunately, instead of protecting they have built insurmountable hurdles for conversions and mixed marriages. Does the Minister agree that the disappearance of the two pastors is just the latest indication of the daily horrors faced in Burma? What representations have been made on behalf of Christians who fear uttering the very name of Jesus himself?

 

A few weeks ago in the House, I responded to a debate on human rights in which the hon. Gentleman made some powerful interventions. I know that he cares very deeply about minorities, and particularly the Christian community. As I have said, we continue to make the case, not only to the Burmese Government but internationally, that these matters are vital and that we must ensure there is no persecution of Christians or any other type of minority in that country. We will keep doing that. It is important that we have debates such as this in the House, because it shows the international community that the whole House cares very deeply about this matter.

 

The Burmese Government’s commission to investigate the violation of Rohingya human rights found insufficient evidence of such violations, which I find shocking given the fact that they continue to be one of the most persecuted communities. What direct conversations has the Minister had with the Burmese Government to challenge the accuracy of that ridiculous report?

 

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government have also noted the interim report that has been produced by the investigation commission, which, as he intimated, indicates that no human rights abuses have taken place. That of course goes against the weight of testimony from a range of human rights sources; frankly, it is not credible. We call on the commission to demonstrate over the coming weeks the commitment made by the Burmese Government to an impartial investigation. We will of course wait to see what the final report says, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it needs to be credible for anyone to take it seriously.

 

First, I will not be in the Chamber tomorrow, Mr Speaker—I know you will miss me—but I know it will be your birthday, so may I take the opportunity to wish you an early happy birthday?

Minister, since the Burmese security forces started their campaign in October, it has been established that around 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country. According to reports, the minority group has been subject to arson, rape and murder at the hands of the military. Such allegations are incredibly serious, so I ask the Minister—I believe for the fourth time—whether he will continue to call for the establishment of an independent investigation into the claims?

 

Thank you.

 

Mr Speaker, may I, too, wish you a happy birthday for tomorrow? [Laughter.]

 

May you live forever!

 

I mean that most sincerely.

In response to the hon. Lady, I hope I have made clear today that the UK is pursuing a huge number of avenues to get humanitarian aid in and make the case for minorities. We are making it clear that we care deeply about these matters, and we will keep doing that. Going back to the approach from a UN perspective, the UN is already engaged in several areas, and we will continue that work and to make the case, because we want to ensure that there is resolution in this very troubled area.

 

Will the Minister say what discussions he has had, or will have, with the Government of Bangladesh about the refugee status of the Rohingya people who, in many cases, have fled the most obscene violence in Rakhine state?

 

I raised the issue of the Rohingya in Bangladesh with representatives of the Bangladesh Government before Christmas. The important point that I made was that they should not be looking to return people who are seeking refuge back into danger. On the aid that we are providing, the UK is the largest provider of food aid to the 34,000 Rohingya refugees already living in official camps in Bangladesh. Since 2014, the UK has provided nearly £8 million to address the humanitarian suffering of Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable Bangladeshi communities that host them.

 

I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the urgent question. I was meant to be in Burma this week with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. When we were briefed the other day, we were told that the visit had been delayed till May. The foundation indicated that, in addition to the two main parties, there are 92 other parties. Will the Minister consider how someone like me who has experienced the difficulties in Northern Ireland can help some of those parties to work together and to learn to respect the military so that we find a way forward? Such advice would be a great help for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

 

I am very happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after this debate about the work that he is doing with the Westminster Foundation. On the discussions that we are having, it is Aung San Suu Kyi who is effectively leading the Government, and we have contact with her. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will meet her very soon on his visit to Burma. We continue to engage with all the actors, particularly through our ambassador. As I have said during this debate, the key thing is engagement with the military. At the end of the day, it is the military that is leading some of the issues over which we have some concerns, and it is vital that we continue to engage with it.

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