HC Deb 05 April 2000 vol 347 cc201-21WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

9.30 am
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to draw Parliament's attention to the appalling and systematic genocide taking place against the Karen, Shan and Karenni minority peoples in Burma. As far as I know, this is the first debate in Parliament devoted to that genocide. The atrocities in Burma must rank among the worst in the world; yet, unlike the similar situations in Kosovo and Bosnia, the international community and the media have failed dismally to give the slaughter the coverage that it deserves.

At a recent meeting set up by the British human rights group, the Jubilee campaign, I met representatives of the Karen movement. I talked to the president of the Karen National League and saw Kwe Htoo from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. They both impressed on me the systematic extermination being inflicted on the Karen, Shan and Karenni ethnic minorities. They urgently appealed for the maximum international pressure to be put on Burma's military regime to stop the genocide, and for extensive aid to stem the growing humanitarian disaster among Burma's ethnic minorities.

With an estimated 7 million people, the Karen is Burma's largest ethnic minority. More than 300,000 Karen are internally displaced as a direct result of Burmese military action. Many of them hiding in the jungle, with little or no food or medicine, and they are normally killed on sight when discovered. For example, on 27 July 1999, at least 22 internally displaced Karen people, including a baby and two children aged two and eight, were killed by Burmese troops from Infantry Battalion 101 at Kawei and Hpway Plaw villages in Mergui district. Many of the victims were literally beaten to death with rice pounders, and 19-year-old Naw Nail Naw was gang-raped by the soldiers before she was murdered.

The overall population of internally displaced people in Burma is about 2 million, which means that it has some of the worst internal displacement in the world. There is probably no other nation like Burma; hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have to hide in the jungle in the most primitive conditions, and they are hunted and slaughtered like animals. Since 1993, more than 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military action. That is one example of the atrocities routinely inflicted on the Karen by the Burmese military.

These atrocities are regularly reported by organisations such as the Jubilee campaign, the Karen National League, the Karen Human Rights Group and the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. They include forced labour, the systematic destruction of villages, forced relocation, widespread and persistent torture and rape, and extrajudicial executions. That regime is the policy of the so-called State Peace and Development Council, which is an Orwellian change of name from what used to be called the State Law and Order Restoration Council—SLORC—which more correctly sums up the regime. The SPDC policy in response to any form of armed resistance by ethnic minorities is what the Burmese call draining the ocean so that the fish cannot swim. In other words, it seeks to undermine the opposition, attacking the civilian population until there is no possibility of their giving any support to opposition rebels.

That is the fundamental idea behind the stated policy of the regime—the four cuts policy—which was initiated by General Ne Win in the 1970s. The idea is to cut off supplies of food, funds, recruits and intelligence to ethnic resistance groups. The direct attacks on the civilian population, characterised by forced mass relocations, destruction of villages and the village economy, extrajudicial executions and completely unsustainable levels of forced labour, have become even more prevalent in the Burmese regime's policy since the 1990s.

In their acts of violence, Burmese troops make no distinction between adults and children. For example, Burmese soldiers killed two Karen children of five and eight in Ko Reh Hta, Karen state. On seeing the children in the forest, the soldiers simply slaughtered them with a knife. Saw Ta Plah Plah and Naw Mi Mu Wah, a little boy and girl aged three and two respectively, were left behind in their village when everyone else fled and it was shelled by Burmese troops from Division 77. The SPDC soldiers found them walking around crying and threw them into their burning house, where they were burnt to death. On 15 October 1998, eight-year-old Naw Mu Lay and two-year-old Naw Dah Dah were killed when Burmese soldiers fired grenades from a rocket launcher at their house.

The widespread rape of minority women by Burmese soldiers also extends to children and youth. On 17 December 1998, Naw Tha Paw, a 17-year-old Karen girl from Maw Kee village, was ambushed by SPDC troops from Light Infantry Battalion 361, raped, then shot or stabbed to death; 14-year-old Saw Maw Dah was with her when they were ambushed, and was shot and killed. On 13 October 1998, 15-year-old Naw Maw Nyunt was raped and killed by soldiers from Infantry Battalion 59.

The Burmese army uses both children and adults for forced labour. The youngest children, who are taken for road and railway building, are usually aged eight or 10, while the others, who are taken for heavy portering duties, carrying supplies for the Burmese army, are usually 12-year-old boys and 14-year-old girls. Conditions for porters are brutal, with female porters being regularly gang-raped at the end of the day. Porters are also used as human minesweepers triggering landmines with their own bodies. In one typical case, Naw Sah Mu, a 15-year-old girl from Papun district in Karen state, stepped on a landmine while portering and had her right leg blown off. Her 16-year-old friend, Zaw Zaw Oo, was hit in the face by the shrapnel and blinded. After they return home, many children die from diseases contracted while portering, combined with exhaustion. The International Labour Organisation has rightly condemned the SPDC's widespread use of slave labour as a "crime against humanity."

The United Nations Special Rapporteur, Mr. Rajsoomer Lallah QC, has acknowledged the systematic nature of the atrocities carried out against Burma's minorities. He submitted a report to the UN General Assembly, dated 10 September 1998, entitled "Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar." Paragraph 59 of the report reads: The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations that continue to be submitted by the armed forces in ethnic minority areas. The violations include extra-judicial and arbitrary executions (not sparing women and children), rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or the acts or individual misbehaviour by middle and lower-rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility. I emphasise the words "at the highest level". They are not just individual acts of barbarism by soldiers; they are condoned at the highest level of the regime.

The Jubilee campaign, Karen National League and the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People have told me that what is happening in the Shan and Karenni ethnic minorities in Burma is genocide. What is the international legal definition of genocide? This is where the British Government comes into the picture, so it is important to get the definition right. The international legal definition of genocide is found in the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which Burma has ratified. The legal definition of the term is contained in article 2. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for reading it out, as it is important to get the legal position absolutely right so as to understand what the Government can and cannot do.

The convention, which we have all signed, states:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. (a) Killing members of the group;
  2. (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group:
  3. (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Some points must be noted in relation to the legal definition of genocide. First, genocide need not be an attempt to destroy an entire ethnic group. An attempt to destroy part of an ethnic group suffices. What is happening to the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma falls within the scenarios set out in article 2 of the convention. There can be no doubt that it constitutes
  1. (a) Killing members of the group;
  2. (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Only one of the five acts set out in article 2 need apply in order for the activities in question to be considered genocide by the international community, but in the case of Burma, at least three of them apply. International law does not require a minimum number of fatalities for a situation to be defined as genocide.

Without any shadow of a doubt, what the Burmese military regime is doing to the Karen, Shan and Karenni minority peoples clearly fits the international legal definition of genocide. Article 3 of the convention on genocide states:

The following acts shall be punishable:

  1. (a) Genocide;
  2. (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
  3. (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
  4. (d) Attempts to commit genocide;
  5. (e) Complicity in genocide.
That is the international law, under which genocide is a very serious crime that requires an urgent global response. Sadly, such a response has not yet materialised.

I believe that the international community should swiftly and firmly press for prosecution of the Burmese military junta and its subordinates for genocide. An international tribunal should be set up by the United Nations Security Council to try the Burmese regime, just as was done in respect of the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia.

The British Government should use their permanent seat on the UNSC to lobby for the establishment of such a tribunal; that is why I am speaking directly to the Minister—and I am pleased to see him here. The Government should also lobby the UNSC for resolutions calling on the SPDC to end the genocide against the Karen, Shan and Karenni people and for global economic sanctions, including a universal arms embargo against Burma.

Would the action that I am suggesting the British Government should take be supported by democratic forces in Burma? The answer is that it would. Aung San Suu Kyi, the legitimate democratic leader of Burma, who is part of the National League for Democracy and who won the vast majority of votes in the 1990 elections, has repeatedly urged the international community to institute economic sanctions against her country. In a statement dated 6 September 1999, she said: Burma is like a huge prison with a military dictatorship holding the keys and locking us away from freedom. Help us open the door of our prison. Economic sanctions are necessary for the fast democratisation of Burma. We would like the European Community, the United States and the rest of the world to be aware that sanctions help the movement for democracy in Burma. Unilateral sanctions are better than on sanctions at all. That is the verdict of the democratically elected leader of Burma.

Foreign investment, I am sorry to say, has directly caused human rights violations. For example, whatever the intentions of the company may be, the Yetagun gas pipeline operated by the British company Premier Oil has fuelled the forced displacement of many Karen and Mon minority peoples by the Burmese army, because the pipeline runs through their areas. The Burma Campaign UK reports that since oil companies first invested in Burma, with plans for piping gas across the Tenasserim division into Thailand, the Burmese military have stepped up their activity in the area. In 1990, there were 1,750 armed soldiers in the investment area, but by 1998 this had increased to 11,230 and two artillery units. Villagers have been forcibly relocated, partly to secure the division for foreign investment. There is no compensation for any houses, crops or belongings stolen or burnt by the Burmese army.

The United States Government has already banned all new investment by US companies in Burma because of the country's appalling human rights record. When I refer to the United States, which is a close ally of ours, I look at the Minister and I hope the British Government will do the same. The establishment of an international tribunal on economic sanctions would give teeth to the calls on the Burmese regime to end its genocidal activities and demonstrate the resolve of the global community to end these horrific and systematic atrocities.

I would like to know whether the British Government are willing to lead attempts to end the genocide by taking the measures that I have suggested and encouraging other nations to follow suit. Even starting to talk about this issue in terms of genocide, even holding this debate, may put some small pressure on the regime in Burma, which could well save lives. It would be tragic and irresponsible if Governments continued to wallow in indecision and ignore the plight of the Shan and Karenni peoples as they are systematically treated in this way. If there is one lesson that the world ought to have learned from the tragedies of the 20th century, it is that the only way to deter genocide is to respond to it swiftly and firmly. If we do not, this century may prove to be even bloodier that the previous one.

I want to make one last comment. We owe a debt as a nation to the Karen people. I took Field Marshal Viscount Slim's book "Defeat into Victory" out of the Library. In it, he writes about the fighting in Burma during the Second World War. He says that as the Japanese drew south in their retreat, their way led them through the country of the Karens, a race which had remained staunchly loyal to us even in the blackest days of the Japanese occupation, and had suffered accordingly. Over a long period, in preparation for this day, we had organised a secret force, the Karen Guerrillas, based on ex-soldiers of the Burma Army for whom British officers and arms had been parachuted into the hills. It was not at all difficult to get the Karens to rise against the hated Japanese; the problem was to restrain them from rising too soon. But now the time had come, and I gave the word, "Up the Karens!". Winston Churchill, in a debate in this House on 5 November 1947 said: in the infliction of vengeance upon the loyal Burmese—the Burmese who were patriotically fighting with British and Indian troops to defend the soil of Burma from Japanese conquerors—great cruelties were perpetrated on those men, because they had helped us to resist the Japanese. He said later in his speech: Burma is an appendage of India and is likely to reproduce, though, of course, on a far smaller scale, the horrors and disasters which have overspread her great neighbour and which should ever haunt the consciences of the principal actors in this tragedy. All loyalties have been discarded and rebuffed; all faithful service has been forgotten and brushed aside. These is no assurance that the power of the new Government will be sufficient to maintain internal order: or, I might add, national independence…We stand on the threshold of another scene of misery and ruin …—[Official Report, 5 November 1947; Vol. 443, c.1848-52.] That was 53 years ago. Nothing has changed. Misery and ruin go on under our noses in that sad country.

I look forward to the Minister giving us some hope. I spent yesterday morning thinking about this debate, after which I dealt with constituency correspondence. It contained the usual flood of small cases about the Child Support Agency and planning. Although those are important matters to our constituents, their problems pale into insignificance when we consider that hundreds of thousands of people on this planet are being moved from their homes and thousands are being murdered. Surely the House of Commons, of all places, has a moral responsibility to lead the court of world opinion and do something about the Burmese regime.

9.50 am
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I endorse every word of the speech made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I am delighted that he obtained the debate. It is pleasing to know that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will reinforce his points.

I shall start where the hon. Gentleman left off, with a case that relates to Field Marshal Slim's involvement in Burma. My interest in that country began with a small constituency matter. A constituent came to see me soon after I was elected in 1992 and told me his story. He fought for the British Army and had the opportunity after the war to enter Britain as a British citizen. He chose to return to his people, the Karens, to help them build their lives. Sadly, they have not been able to build their lives. Bruce Humphrey Taylor eventually came to this country and spent 50 years working here until his death last year. He came to see me about how to get his great niece out of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camp on the Thai-Burmese border. That is when I learned about the atrocities to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough referred.

The atrocities are well documented. There is no doubt about the credibility of the evidence that will be presented to the House today. It is sad that a nation that is so far away and so remote from our considerations is forgotten. Burma has the most corrupt regime on the planet. We can pluck out examples of problems in other countries, but where else is there such systematic use of forced labour, destruction of villages and killing of people?

I shall refer to the atrocities in the context of the hon. Gentleman's reference to the United Nations convention on human rights to which, ironically, as he said, Burma is a signatory. An independent report published by the Karen Human Rights Group in 1998 entitled "Wholesale Destruction" has been widely circulated around the world, but no one from the Burmese regime has challenged one word of its content. The section on the destruction of villages sets out the activities of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. SLORC launched a campaign in many parts of Burma forcibly to move or wipe out all rural villages that were not under the direct physical control of an army camp.

The issue of forced of labour is also well documented. Groups of people have been forced to build roads and grow food for the army—not for the sake of the nation's infrastructure, but to improve the wretched army's ability to terrorise them. The evidence is overwhelming. One day we shall have the facility to show photographs during our debates. Photographs exist that would make right hon. and hon. Members' blood curdle—of people being burnt alive, shot, maimed and tortured by that wretched regime.

To what degree is the regime responsible? The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that he presumed that the instructions came from the highest authority. I believe that it is now clear that that is so. A book published towards the end of last year, "Voice of a Hungry Nation", has a fascinating appendix 6, which contains facsimiles of military orders. One, requiring paddy cultivation, is an invitation to the head man of a village. Regarding the above, we want to discuss the agricultural cultivation situation with you, so everyone must come to the following meeting. (To: pay back left over loans given for crops) That refers to crops that people are forced to grow to sell to the regime. If they want to feed themselves they must buy them back at a much higher price. There are documents about provision of food to the army and about porter duty for the army. A minor military instruction to send porters states: Regarding the above matter, in relation to the provision of military operations servants, the Village Tract Head must arrange for the sending of four military operations servants as outlined below, without fail. Those are fairly blunt military instructions. They do not state directly what will happen to the people if they fail to comply, but the truth becomes clear as one reads on. A document about the "matter of voluntary labor contribution to construct a dam" states that Ten people must come with tools for voluntary labor to build the dam. Those people must report to a military camp. Another document is identified as an order to relocate. No one relocates voluntarily. That is clear military evidence of the beginnings of the destruction of villages. The document states: An order has been issued to— a village, the name of which has been deliberately deleted— to vacate the place and move to another village or to any other place where the villagers have relatives…After the date of issue of this order, it is warned that the Army will go around clearing the area and should any village or small huts in the paddy fields be found still standing, they will all be dismantled and destroyed. That is an acknowledgement by the regime that it is engaged in destroying people's homes. This country was up in arms when Ian Smith tried to do the same thing on the borders of what was then Rhodesia. Why are we not up in arms now when the exact same thing is happening in Burma?

The ultimate military order in the selection reads as follows: Subject: Notification. As has come to light, tracts, elders and villagers of the Mehpletdoe region have all heard the KNU's notice that it will plant land mines 4 ft 6 in from the edges of roads to be set off by its enemies. While we don't intend to further increase the problems of the villagers— joke— we also hereby inform our village parents, brothers and sisters that we will also start to do the same thing. We have great love for you all. We cannot protect you all.

  1. (1) We will start to lay mines and ambush as of 20/2/99.
  2. (2) Whatever place/village we enter, absolutely don't run away.
  3. (3) We won't accept responsibility for anyone who runs.
Those military orders provide unambiguous evidence of the approach that is being adopted and such documents provide evidence that should be submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

There is no doubt that genocide is being committed by that regime. The destruction of villages, forced labour and murder is being authorised at the highest level. The problem is that Burma is a long way away. Television cameras go to Rangoon and, quite rightly, give coverage to the bravery of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected as the democratic leader of the Burmese nation, but the television cameras do not go into the remote jungles and see what is happening there, where 30,000 people have been killed in a short time, many of them in the most barbaric way.

We have a responsibility to do something, not least because British companies are seeking to invest there. To be fair to British industry, most companies have heeded the Government's warning that further investment is unacceptable. Not only has Premier Oil ignored the advice of the British Government, but its very acts have exacerbated the situation. To be fair, Britain has played a small part in trying to bring about democracy and justice in Burma, but much more needs to be done. We need to raise the matter robustly in the United Nations and the European Union. We have a serious problem with foreign policy issues and the EU. For example, if the French decide not to play ball because they have oil interests in a country, that presents difficulties for Britain as a member of the EU, but we must take a much more robust position. Small countries, such as Norway, are doing more than Britain to re-establish human rights and democracy in Burma.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is moved by the issues that have been raised today. I know that our good friend, the late Derek Fatchett, had started to move the debate on, and I know that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), who is in the far east at the moment, is also very keen to see some positive action taken. One thing that the House can do is show unity of purpose and collectively asks the Government to do all that they can to bring this terrible situation to the attention of the world. I hope that the media will take this debate seriously and that the Government will use the unity of purpose in the House at least to begin to put more pressure on the authorities in the United Nations and the European Union. In memory of the thousands of people who have been killed, we must do everything that we can to restore democracy in that country.

10.5 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). Both he and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) have painted a tragic picture of what has been going on in Burma. My own interest, like that of others, stems partly from wartime understanding, because a number of constituents and friends in Belfast served in Burma, and one of my cousins' husband was a Japanese prisoner of war through serving in Burma. More recently, I have had contact with a young Burmese student in the Belfast Bible college. However, most of the information that I have gained has come from the campaigning bodies that seek to remind us all that one of the greatest tragedies in the world continues in Burma.

A recent report reminds me that although, as Christians and because of our British connection with the Karen and Karenni people, we have emphasised their lot, the reality is that different groups throughout Burma are affected, not only the Shan and the Mon, but the Rohingya and others. It is a desperate situation when a so-called Government seeking to govern a country terrorise and persecute their own people.

Lest some think that we are dealing only with Christian people, a report that I received today from a joint Australian-United Kingdom Christian Solidarity mission to Burma and Thailand in October 1999 makes solemn reading. The bulk of the people that the mission met were Buddhists, and the report says that it may have been because most of the Christians have already been displaced. It is a humanitarian issue of the greatest moment. It is not a religious or sectarian conflict, but a Government seeking to force their views on people by terror.

My colleagues painted the picture on the ground; I want to probe some of the issues. Although Governments have signed accords and agreements, quite often, as in Burma, they do not implement them. One problem that permeates the situation today is European Union co-operation. What representations has the Minister made to his European colleagues concerning the EU's participation in Association of South-East Asian Nations meetings at which Burma is present? I understand that the Government has taken a firm line on that, but if the Burmese Government are seeking to make their own citizens outcasts, the world at large should make them outcasts until they return to democratic practices.

There are some who claim that the Karen and Karenni are seeking to be independent. I am not convinced that that is true. They want to be able to live in their own country, perhaps as part of a proper democratic Burmese society. Is the European Union prepared to respond to Aung San Suu Kyi's views that economic sanctions should be imposed on Burma by ending all links—tourism, trade or investment by European companies—between the European Union and Burma? People will say immediately that that will put pressure on the poorest, but the harsh reality is that the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or the State Peace and Development Council—SLORC or the SPDC; it changes its initials to suit different situations— already imposes such sanctions on its own people.

For two years, the people who have been displaced and forced to live in the jungle have managed to survive. However, because of a severe drought in 1998 and the campaign by the San Tha Lone, or SSS—a particularly vicious group of terrorist soldiers, who ravage and burn villages—there is no longer sufficient food, even in the countryside, for people to exist on. It is a question not of our penalising those people, but of our starting to put pressure on those who are doing the levelling. I think that I use that term correctly: the Minister of Education in the Burmese Government has very little education, so he spends his time closing the universities in Burma. That is a form of levelling with which I do not agree, as I would prefer to level upwards, rather than downwards.

The time has come for the international community to put pressure on the Burmese authorities. I appreciate the problems faced by the Government in their dealings with the Burmese authorities. I know that the Burmese authorities can be arrogant and that, at times, they are not prepared even to answer the phone and discuss the issues with our representatives. However, if they take that line, we should mobilise international opinion to keep up the pressure on them. The issue has been given some emphasis in the European Union and in the United States, but there is a case for asking our Japanese allies to start acting effectively. The Japanese—willingly, unwillingly or simply in the natural desire to foster trade in the interests of their own people—are giving support to the Burmese Government that is keeping them going.

The concept of economic sanctions is important, and I urge the Government to maintain pressure not only on British companies, which, by and large, have abided by that concept, but also on their European counterparts. What discussions have been held with the International Monetary Fund about financial aid packages, and are they linked with reforms in Burma? There have been suggestions that this nation has moved away from its ethical foreign policy; I would not like to think that that was the case. As well as dealing with financial and material needs, the IMF should consider the ethical issues relating to policies that are impoverishing many people.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to the campaign against landmines. People who have spoken to us about the burning of villages do not mean only the torching of a row of terraced houses; they are talking about people going from one house to another, destroying them deliberately—and destroying many of the people as well. The Burmese authorities will say that they have to take such strong action because the liberation army of the Karen people is fighting them and that it is a war of independence. I would put it in another way: it is a war of protection. In one area of Burma, about 25,000 Burmese soldiers are operating in four districts, where approximately 1,000 members of the liberation army are operating to protect their people against butchery by soldiers on behalf of a disreputable Government. I support my colleagues in bringing the issue before Parliament, the nation and the world, and saying that we stand by a persecuted people. They are persecuted simply because they face a totalitarian regime that is not prepared to play by the rules.

10.15 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), not only on securing the debate, but on his presentation of the case. He made an extremely good speech and is right to say that we have been remiss in not having this debate and not bringing the issues to Parliament's attention before.

I also welcome the speech by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who spoke alarmingly about some of the military objectives. I had not heard about those before, and they shocked me greatly. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) asked the Minister some important questions about sanctions, and I hope that he will answer those directly.

I want to place on record the thanks that we all owe to the work of the Burma Campaign UK and the Burma Action Group UK, which consistently raise important issues. I have to confess that, unlike the previous three speakers, I am not an expert on the matter; it is very much new to me. I have spent the past 48 hours preparing for the debate and have been appalled to read about what has been taking place in Burma. Those groups have been extremely helpful in providing information, as have the speeches that we have just heard.

Some of the minorities that we are discussing have been fighting for independence for almost 50 years, mostly against the backdrop of a bloody civil war with a military regime. It is appropriate that we look back at the role of the Karen people, who fought bravely alongside the British in Asia during the Second World War. The Karen people assumed that they would get British assistance in the foundation of an independent state in return for their courage and actions. We have heard a number of quotes from Viscount Slim, and I will add to them: he described the Karen people as "far from fair-weather friends". However, instead of getting an independent state, which they might have expected, the Karen people, as well as other ethnic minorities, have been blatantly abused by the Burmese Government ever since.

Sadly, it is an everyday occurrence for the Karen people, as well as many other minorities, to work in forced labour camps, often for little or no pay. Worse than that, as the International Labour Organisation has pointed out, is the fact that a significant proportion of those workers are children, the elderly and disabled people. In addition, the forced labour is often in opium fields, so workers are contributing to the appallingly high heroin production in that part of the world. Such atrocities are deplorable. Quite rightly, the ILO—an agency of the United Nations—passed a virtually unprecedented resolution expelling Burma from that organisation last June.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end with forced labour. As we have heard, the Burmese Government has targeted ethnic minorities as political enemies by birth. They are constantly tortured, imprisoned, murdered and harassed by that Government. Nearly 2,000 people are imprisoned in Burma solely because of their ethnicity. The Government can get away with that, because the shadow of a judicial system that exists is not independent from the executive military junta, and almost no one receives a fair trial—especially not those from ethnic minorities.

The United Nations estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 Burmese refugees have fled into neighbouring countries, specifically India and Thailand. Because of political affiliations there, Thailand and India find it hard to recognise those individuals as refugees. Will it be possible to make representations to India and Thailand to see what they can do to assist those refugees?

In 1990, the military Government agreed to hold democratic elections, and 82 per cent. of the seats in Parliament were won by the National League for Democracy. The fact that Burma was holding elections was seen as a promising development. However, that elected Parliament was never allowed to convene; worse than that, 78 of its Members were jailed by the Burmese Government, and two of them died during their imprisonment. Six students who took part in that election and supported the National League for Democracy await execution.

There has been a massive build-up of the military arsenal in the area and, as John Jackson of the Burma Campaign UK says, nearly 40 per cent. of Burma's gross domestic product is spent on the military. The country's active military numbers around 400.000, a figure that is double that of 20 years ago, despite the fact that Burma has no real external enemies in that part of Asia. With that spending increase, health, education and social security have all been denied to people there in the past few years. John Jackson says that spending on health and social security has dropped below 5 per cent., and education below 10 per cent., while defence remains at around 40 per cent. of GDP.

It is important to look at some of the conditions to which those policies are leading. As the United States Central Intelligence Agency has said, life expectancy at birth is only 54 years, and infant mortality stands at 76 deaths for every 1,000 born, which is higher than in Vietnam and Thailand combined. Schools have been closed down for years on end and, with the exception of the two universities in Rangoon, no higher education is available.

Mr. Miller

I want to clarify that the statistics that the hon. Gentleman is citing refer to the whole of Burma, and that they include the privileged people who are supported by the regime. The statistics in the ethnic minority areas are substantially worse than the bad statistics that he has quoted.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The picture is much worse if it is narrowed down to the ethnic minorities. The education figures are dramatically reduced when they are considered for the ethnic minorities alone.

According to the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, in my judgment, the Burmese Government's campaign against minorities falls within the legal guideline for genocide. I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough that the evidence for genocide is compelling. To date, the Government has at least acknowledged that, and it is true that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has sent some positive messages on the matter, but the Government has so far merely noted the concerns rather than taken positive action. In opposition, the Labour party urged the Conservative Government to support a Danish-led European sanctions campaign. I want the Minister to acknowledge that the Government has perhaps not been as robust as they could have been in fulfilling their pre-election promises to impose investment sanctions.

Sanctions are never an easy option, and there are many legal issues that need to be addressed. The Government originally claimed that they could not impose sanctions against Burma because of article 73(g) of the treaty of Rome, which forbids any EU member state to impose unilateral trade sanctions separately from the Union. A number of us are calling for, not trade, but investment sanctions, which are protected under article 60.2 of the treaty of Rome, provided that there are serious political reasons and the situation is urgent. The Government and the European Commission can claim that, because the situation has been going on for such an extended period, the matter is not urgent, but it is my belief that genocide and such extensive human rights violations, no matter how long they have been going on, remain an urgent matter. Investment sanctions could be imposed and would be protected under article 60.2.

It is often argued that such sanctions hurt those most in need. However, only the upper class and the Government benefit directly from investment. It pays for their extravagant life style and for the intense military build-up. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, even the leader of the National League for Democracy said that such sanctions would do good. She said that the real profits from investments do not go to the people of Burma. It is all concentrated in the hands of foreign investors or privileged people…The poor people will not suffer because of a boycott. Obviously, the evidence points in the direction of the greater use of sanctions. The chronic abuse of human rights of the minorities of Burma, as well as the horrid overall state of affairs, requires action by the Government. Amnesty International, the National League for Democracy, the United States of America and others all endorse investment sanctions on Burma. The United States has imposed such sanctions since 1997. The matter is urgent and I hope that the Minister will set out a plan of action so that we can do more to help the people about whom we have heard this morning.

10.26 am
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

We should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for introducing the debate. This is the first time that the issue has been debated in the House of Commons. I am sure that the Minister will respond aptly to the heart-rending stories and pleas from hon. Members of all parties about a forgotten act of genocide that has continued for more than 52 years. I hope that, like me, he will acknowledge the great role that has been played by Wilfred Wong of the Jubilee campaign and Dirk Patterson of Christian Solidarity, who have been bringing the act of genocide to the attention of Members of Parliament for some time. We are grateful to them for their work.

Burma was a British colony. It was part of British India until 1948, when it became independent from the Commonwealth. From 1964, it was a one-party state ruled by the Burma Socialist Programme party under General Nei Win, which was allied closely to the armed forces. In 1988, an economic collapse provoked popular unrest that threatened the position of the BSPP. Although Nei Win retired officially, he retained influence behind the scenes. At first, the unrest was put down with force, with massacres of opposition demonstrators as the military attempted to maintain its position. Since then, the country has remained in a parlous state.

Since independence, Burma has been in a state of civil war and the Burmese military has indiscriminately abused the human rights of ethnic minorities—whether they be insurgents or civilians—with widespread disappearances, extrajudical killings and torture, as well as forced labour and relocation. The points that were made by the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) reflect a great consensus among the parties in our attitude towards the regime in Burma and what is happening to the people of that country.

The Karen people are the largest minority group in Burma, with 7 million or more people. In the past fortnight, I have met four of their representatives. They were quietly spoken and brought with them tales of horror, deprivation, murder and rape. No one could fail to have been moved by their testimony. The Karen are facing genocide at the hands of the Burmese army. Since 1993, more than 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military action. Many have died of starvation and illnesses resulting from being displaced. Since 1995, the slaughter has intensified, as more extensive parts of Karen territory have come under Burmese military control. In fact, since the 1990s, the Burmese military has delilberately targeted civilians during military operations.

There are more than 300,000 internally displaced Karen people in Burma. That figure comes from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, a representative of which has met me and my hon. Friends in the past 10 days. Many of those people are hiding from the Burmese army in the jungles, with little or no food and water. They are shot on sight. One of the representatives who saw me spoke perfect English. I asked him where he learned English and he replied, "I studied in the jungle. I taught myself so I could communicate." The fact that civilians are shot on sight makes Burma almost unique. There is probably no other country in the world where so many civilians are forced to hide in the jungle and are slaughtered like animals when they are found.

Counting other ethnic groups as well as the Karen, the total population of internally displaced people in the region is about 2 million—one of the highest in the world. There are about 120,000 Karen refugees in Thailand. They have been forced to flee by the atrocities of the Burmese army. The Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities are experiencing all the privations that have been described by other hon. Members, such as the systematic destruction of their villages, crops and food stores, and forcible relocation to sites of forced labour without pay or food. Those who flee the relocations are hunted down by the Burmese troops and shot on sight.

Extrajudicial executions are widespread and frequent, and the victims include women, children, babies and pregnant women. The rape of minority women is extensive. We discussed the role of women in development in this Chamber during the debate on the International Development Committee's first-class report. We know that the Serbs used rape against Bosnian Muslims as part of their ethnic cleansing policies. That has received much publicity, but not much has been said in the media about the systematic rape by the Burmese army of the women of ethnic minorities in that region.

Those atrocities have been widely documented by human rights organisations, such as the Karen Human Rights Group and EarthRights International, but they have not been extensively reported in the press. I do not believe that the average person in the street would think of Burma if asked to name the regions of the world in which the worst atrocities have been perpetrated. I hope that this debate will raise the profile of what is being done in that part of the world. It gives the Minister the opportunity to make some practical suggestions on how to proceed.

I do not want to shock anyone, but some examples of the atrocities that have been perpetrated should be put on record. The examples were given to EarthRights International by the villagers. One witness said: In my village, there were two spinsters…The soldiers came to the house…and asked the spinsters to show them the way to a military camp. The woman staying in the house saw them talking to the soldiers and saw the spinsters go with the soldiers. The next time the villagers saw them, they were dead and lying face down on the ground. The soldiers raped and killed them. When we found them, they were lying down on the ground without any clothes on below their waists. One of the women's throats had been cut; the other had been shot. Another witness said: In my village, the soldiers did not try to marry with the women, but they went to the houses to sleep with the women. They did not ask. They went to sleep with them. The soldiers would go quietly to sleep with the women without asking the permission of the owner of the houses where the women lived. The girls would scream. It happened every time the soldiers came to the village. When the soldiers were in the village, they cried every night. The Minister has a difficult task. He has to satisfy all parties in this Chamber that he will take action. There have been developments involving the Government and the European Union. I hope that he will not only answer the questions raised by the hon. Members but tell us, especially in the light of his responsibilities, what is happening at European level. We know that the European Union has observed a package of sanctions against Burma since 1996. That was set out as a common position on 28 October 1996, amended by a Council decision in October 1998 and then extended. What have those sanctions achieved? Does he have evidence that sanctions have worked in any way, shape or form, or does he believe, as I do, that it is time to review what is happening, and consider whether another strategy might be more effective?

Aid has been supplied to Burma through non-governmental organisations. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is no point in supplying aid through a Government organisation in this country. Nongovernmental organisations provide the sensible route. It appears that only limited amounts have been given to Burma, or any of the minorities, in the form of emergency assistance, including relief for flood victims—only £272,000 in 1998 and a small additional amount for a health project run by World Vision.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what further aid has been provided. Does he plan to discuss the question of aid for the region with his colleagues in the Department for International Development?

Mr. Miller

I want the hon. Lady to be absolutely clear about sanctions, as it is important to express a unified position. Is she saying that the official Opposition want to strengthen sanctions, as we did against South Africa? Would she support the channelling of aid through bordering countries to ethnic minority groups, which Norway, for example, is doing?

Mrs. Gillan

I believe that there is no consensus on economic sanctions in the EU or the UN Security Council. I am asking the Minister, who has access to the information, to provide an assessment of what those sanctions have achieved. What, in his judgment, would be the next step? Clearly, the sanctions regime is having little effect.

I am especially keen on the delivery of aid through NGOs. In previous debates, I have called for Government aid to Zimbabwe to be stopped and channelled through non-governmental organisations so that it reaches those who are most in need. What aid and resources have been delivered to Burma, and what future plans exist?

I want to link the regime to the international criminal court, on which the Government has hung their hat. We have talked about that a great deal and are looking forward to seeing legislation on it. Will the court's powers cover the Burmese regime? What stage has the legislation reached? What are our plans for that international institution? The perpetrators of genocide in Burma could be prime candidates to be hauled before an international criminal court.

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but does she agree that it will take time to establish the court? We need not wait for it to be in place. Procedures exist to deal with the problem.

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend is right. I would not want to delay the process of passing judgment on the perpetrators of such crimes, but I want to take this opportunity to press the Minister on legislation to establish the international criminal court. That has been much promised and much vaunted, but so far we have had only hot air and warm words.

There is a common purpose among us. We all want to know what the United Kingdom can do to restore the rule of law and to encourage the development of a benign Government and the restoration of civil society in Burma. Everyone who spoke made a great contribution to developing the case against the regime. If the debate moves the process forward, it will have been worthwhile. I hope that the Minister will reassure us and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

10.41 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz)

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for giving us a unique opportunity to debate the appalling situation that faces the Karen and other Burmese ethnic minorities. The issue rightly continues to be of great concern to the House and the other place. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), for their contributions. I have not attended many debates in the House on which there has been such unanimity. Those who spoke, especially the hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Belfast, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, have a long and close interest in the matter.

Her Majesty's Government and I share the outrage expressed by many at the dreadful human rights abuses in Burma. The Burmese regime's brutal policies, including torture, rape, forced labour, forced relocations and arbitrary executions, towards ethnic minorities have led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people across Burma's borders into neighbouring countries.

We understand that there are 22,000 Burmese refugees in Bangladesh and, officially, 105,000 mostly Karen and Karenni in camps near the border in Thailand. Thousands of other refugees are either internally displaced in Burma or living illegally in Thailand outside the refugee camps. The appalling suffering of ethnic minorities in Burma is a symptom of a wider malaise—the subjugation of a nation by military despots who continue to ignore the people's democratic choice. While that dreadful state of affairs lasts, we shall give the regime no respite. In all the international forums, on every possible occasion, we shall continue to press it to move forward. It can expect no relaxation of the pressure and measures that have been adopted for as long as it holds out against political and economic reform.

Later, I shall explain what we are doing in greater detail, but first I should like to respond to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and describe how we are helping the ethnic minorities and refugees. We use a variety of channels; we are providing direct British humanitarian assistance, and working closely with neighbouring countries on repatriation issues and safeguarding the security of refugees. The activities of our embassies in Rangoon and Bangkok are another channel of support. I pay tribute to our ambassador, John Jenkins, and to his small team in Rangoon for their dedication and perseverance in trying and difficult circumstances.

British humanitarian assistance delivers vital relief to the region. Our assistance to organisations working on the ground in Burma targets some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. Since 1996, we have provided more than £1 million in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries. This year alone, we have allocated £270,000 to support the excellent work of the Burma Border Consortium in providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps in Thailand. With our EU partners, we have also supported work in repatriating and resettling Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Burma and ensuring their protection on arrival. We are always open to suggestions and other workable ideas on how we can alleviate the suffering of ordinary Burmese people. The hon. Member for Gainsborough told the House about his meetings with affected parties. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), also has such experience, as, before his sad demise, did my colleague Derek Fatchett.

The large number of refugees in Thailand places a considerable burden on that country. Occasionally, the Thai authorities crack down on illegal economic migrants, a large number of whom are Burmese. We have sought and received assurances from the Thai authorities that there will be no forced repatriations of refugees. Since 1998, when the UNHCR established field offices in Thailand, there has been no evidence of such repatriations. We shall continue to pay close attention to this sensitive issue.

Mrs. Gillan

I am most grateful to the Minister for the way in which he is treating the debate and for his responses so far. Will he clarify one point? He has put into the region aid of some £270,000 this year and £1 million since 1996. In the light of the size of the problem, will he undertake to review that amount and to consider whether it can be revised upwards? It is a small sum and I hope that he will perceive from this debate the need for more resources to be put into the area, which is of great fragility. Will he undertake to review the amount spent on humanitarian aid, bearing in mind the number of requests that he will undoubtedly have received?

Mr. Vaz

I can tell the hon. Lady and all hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will consider all the points that have been made. We constantly monitor the situation and we will continue to do so.

Refugees must enjoy adequate security. The 1998 attacks on Wangka and Mawker refugee camps in Thailand by a splinter Karen group highlighted the acute dangers faced by Burmese refugees there. While we welcome the important role played by the Thai authorities in providing shelter for refugees, we have urged them to ensure that the camps receive adequate protection. The British embassy in Bangkok regularly visits the camps to monitor the situation. We fully support the role of UN agencies in providing protection for the Rohingya refugees in northern Rakhine State. Our ambassador travelled to the state last month to see the situation for himself. Embassy staff in Rangoon regularly monitor the work of the UN and international NGOs operating in difficult circumstances.

The plight of Burmese ethnic minorities flows from the wider political and human rights situation in Burma, which remains, as we have heard this morning, appalling. Human rights violations by the regime are among the worst in the world. In addition to the atrocities that I have mentioned, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that there are 1,500 political prisoners in Burma. There is no democracy there, despite democratic elections in 1990.

Our policy on Burma is to press the regime to improve its human rights record and to enter into a substantive dialogue with the National League for Democracy, which was the overwhelming victor in the 1990 election, as well as with ethnic minority leaders, to find a political solution to the country's problems. On Wednesday, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will meet Dr. Sen Win, the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma. Our policy recognises the need to sustain the Burmese opposition and to resist the regime's efforts to wear down the international resistance to its undemocratic rule. We are determined to keep up pressure on Burma on every front, bilaterally, regionally and multinationally, in whatever forum is available.

Burma's record is an affront to the United Nations principles that it has undertaken to uphold. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and the hon. Member for Belfast, South asked what we were doing with our EU partners. We are working with them on a strongly worded draft resolution to be adopted at the UN Commission on Human Rights in the coming weeks. The resolution catalogues the widespread human rights violations that have resulted in the displacement of people—particularly ethnic minorities. We cosponsored a similar resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in November. It is the responsibility of the Burmese Government to respect their obligations and implement United Nations resolutions swiftly and in full. We shall maintain all pressure to ensure that they do so.

We are always ready to look for ways to inject momentum into the engagement of the United Nations with Burma. I was therefore delighted to learn this morning of the appointment of Razali Ismail as the UN Secretary-General's new special representative to Burma. Mr. Razali brings to the job a wealth of UN experience, having previously been Malaysia's permanent representative in New York. I am sure that he will carry out his role with dynamism and creativity and I am certain that Foreign Office Ministers will seek to meet him at the earliest opportunity to pass on the concerns of the Government and Members of Parliament.

As the hon. Member for Winchester said, the United Kingdom led the charge at the governing body of the International Labour Organisation in condemnation of Burma. The regime has consistently ignored the ILO's recommendations on stopping forced labour. However, I point out that it has not been expelled from the organisation. In an unprecedented move, the organisation has arranged a discussion for its June 2000 conference, which could result in an appeal to its other 174 member states to review their relationship with Burma, and to take appropriate measures to ensure that it cannot take advantage of such relations to perpetuate or extend the system of forced compulsory labour practised against the country's citizens. It will be the first time that such steps have been taken against an ILO member and that will be implicit recognition that Burma's behaviour in this respect is worse than any other labour issue anywhere. We are pressing hard with our EU partners to strengthen the common position on Burma when it is renewed later this month.

We have withdrawn all financial support for trade missions to Burma and we do not encourage British companies to trade or invest there; nor do we encourage tourism. After all, Burmese democratic leaders do not think that that is appropriate. We maintain very close contacts with pro-democracy groups in Burma including Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the NLD. Embassy officials in Rangoon and visiting officials frequently meet with her and other members of the NLD. We all value this important contact. Our thoughts are with her at this difficult time, the first anniversary of her husband's tragic death. Were it not for the international support that she and her colleagues receive, they would probably have been locked away long ago.

The Government shares fully the concerns that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members have expressed today, about the plight of the Karen and other ethnic minority refugees in Burma. We are deeply disturbed by the continued violation of human rights by the military regime. The Government are second to none in bringing international pressure to bear on that regime to make it mend its ways. The regime has a duty to its people to implement democratic reform. The plight of the Burmese people will remain high on the list of the Government's priorities until such time as we are able, as a result of genuine change in Burma, to welcome the country back into the international fold.

The eloquent and passionate speech made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough has ensured that the focus of Parliament and, indeed, the world is on the events in Burma. He was right to say that this debate could result in the regime listening to us. It could also result in some lives being saved. I can assure him that if there is anything further that he feels that the Government can do to strengthen our already strong position, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be happy to meet him and his delegation of Members of Parliament to discuss matters further. It would be helpful if that delegation included the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the hon. Member for Winchester, as that would demonstrate the unanimity of purpose among all the parties.

Mr. Leigh

It is important that we state that the actions of this regime amount to genocide, according to the legal definition. By doing so, we will be able to persuade the United Nations and our European Union partners to take action. Will the Minister please address that point?

Mr. Vaz

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises the matter. The descriptions that he has given us are appalling, but he must know that the term "genocide" has a precise meaning in international law. To be frank, under international law and all the rights and responsibilities that bind one under that law, genocide is difficult to prove. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and I can assure him that we will keep looking at this point, but genocide is a legal term and has a particular definition. I know that he does not use the word loosely. Defining the actions of the Burmese regime as genocide is important to him and to what he hopes that the Government and the international community can do. I assure him that we have noted what he has said and will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Vaz

I will not give way because we have nearly finished the debate.

Our message to the Burmese people is that they are not forgotten; that is demonstrated by what is being done here in the House of Commons, at the European Union, in the General Affairs Council, and through continued international contacts. We are committed more than ever to work with them and we will not rest until there is an end to human rights abuses and a return to democracy and constitutional rule. I thank the hon. Member for Gainsborough for introducing the debate and so giving Parliament an opportunity to discuss this issue and the Government an opportunity to reiterate their commitment to the people of Burma.

10.59 am
Mrs. Gillan

I am sorry that the Minister would not take an intervention from me. I understood from his speech that he does not believe that genocide is taking place in Burma. I ask the Minister to write to me and clarify the Government's position on the atrocities that have been described this morning and to inform us whether the Government believes that they fall within the definition of genocide. I think every hon. Member who has participated in the debate would find that helpful.

Mr. Vaz

I have made it clear to the hon. Member for Gainsborough that genocide is a legal definition and a legal term. I will write to the hon. Lady if she would like me to.

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