§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.9.30 am
§ Mr. lain Luke (Dundee, East)
This is a debate that I, and many others, have been trying to secure for some time. It was the reason behind my question to the Leader of the House on 12 June during business questions. In requesting such a debate, I drew his attention to the concerns of 250 Members from both sides of the House, and of people throughout the UK, about the subject of early-day motions 1296, 1311 and 1316, which relate to the taking into protective custody of Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, the number of Members who have signed those early-day motions has grown to 335, which is more than half the membership of the House. I am therefore grateful that Mr. Speaker has used his discretion to select this topic for general debate.
It is good to have an opportunity to raise concerns that are held by hon. Members of all parties about the continuing oppressive regime in Burma. In 1990, that regime removed, and has repressed ever since, the legitimately elected Government of Burma, and it stifles and puts in prison anyone who dares to campaign for a return to the democratic ideals that were so overwhelmingly endorsed in elections. Outwith the three early-day motions that I have mentioned, during this Session another five have been tabled, subscribed to by 316 Members. They all give voice to the concerns that we all feel about how the military regime maintains power. Eight early-day motions over a parliamentary Session is testimony to the depth of feeling in the House about the circumstances of Burma.
Events during the past month have meant that today's debate comes at a crucial time. Since the taking into protective custody of Aung San Suu Kyi, after a year of what could be called relative freedom, we have witnessed a swift return to retrenchment and repression. We need to renew our efforts and commitment both here at Westminster and further afield to sending a message to the regime—however isolated it is—that enough is enough. It should now stand aside to allow the country it so severely misgoverns, the people it so brutally represses and the ethnic groups it so viciously attacks and abuses to achieve what they undoubtedly deserve and desire: democratic normalcy.
I hope that today's debate will give added urgency to the efforts of our Government and of our allies to unite and apply the pressure that they can collectively muster on the military regime that has illegally controlled Burma for such a long time. As the secretary of the all-party group on democracy in Burma, I am especially glad to lead the debate. Unfortunately, the chair of the group, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who has been active in this field, cannot be with us this morning because of constituency business.
76WH One of the prime reasons for establishing the all-party group was to act as a focus for parliamentary efforts in a campaign to bring about a peaceful change to the way in which Burma is governed. As ordinary parliamentarians, we want to do all we can to encourage the early establishment of a viable, democratic Government based on parliamentary democracy. That is a cause that Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, with her brave long-term commitment to, and consequent long-term imprisonment for, the campaign for freedom and democracy in Burma, has done so much so selflessly to advance. With her release just a year ago from arrest, when she spoke of a new dawn, we all hoped that change was coming. Her recent arrest and imprisonment in the notorious Insein prison, and the crackdown on her party, the National League for Democracy, and other groups campaigning for democratic change show how misplaced those hopes were and make it clear that there is now a need for a trumpet call to further action.
It is right at this stage, on the threshold of new activity, that I pay tribute on behalf of the all-party group to the many groups and individuals outside Parliament who have done so much in past decades to keep alive the cause of Suu Kyi and her fight for democracy in Burma. I also acknowledge the assistance and stimulus given to the all-party group by the Burma Campaign UK, which has done so much to spearhead a very successful disinvestment campaign in the UK.
I also publicly thank all those individuals, local Amnesty International groups and Church-based organisations that have contacted me in the past six months to draw to my attention and to that of the group the plight of the thousands of individuals unjustly and illegally imprisoned because of their belief in and support of the ideals of human rights and popular democracy. Unfortunately, they suffer for their beliefs and are jailed in notorious prisons throughout Burma. We hope to draw attention to their situation at the meeting of the all-party group next week to be held jointly with the all-party group on human rights, at which Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK will lead a discussion on human rights in Burma.
I wish to make very clear our respect and appreciation of how my hon. Friend the Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the officials who staff the south-east Asia desk in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the ambassador in Burma have handled the current crisis and have attempted during my time as a parliamentarian to bring pressure for change on the military regime.
I also personally thank my hon. Friend the Minister for intervening to arrange an opportunity for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar and me to meet the Burmese ambassador. We are now in touch with his office and hope to be able to raise with him directly in the next few weeks our concerns about the plight of all those who are imprisoned in Burma, but specifically Suu Kyi. We also hope to take the opportunity at that meeting to clarify the comments of the Burmese Foreign Minister, U Win Aung, who spoke about Suu Kyi's imminent release at the recent meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Phnom Penh.
77WH In making these points, I realise that the UK can do little on its own to effect real change, but the Government can follow the good advice given by UN Special Commissioner Rezali to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar and me when we met him during his last visit to the UK. He said that we must put whatever pressure we can on Burma's major trading partners, the ASEAN countries, to build on the attitudes that they were beginning to display at their last meeting, which, while falling short of direct criticism of Burma, made it clear that they were unhappy about the recent repressive acts embarked on by the Burmese Government.
In the words of ASEAN's secretary-general, Ong Keng Yong, all ASEAN members would like Suu Kyi to be free to do what she would like to do. She has made it very clear that she would like to bring about democratic change in Burma, and that is something that all members of ASEAN can support, as we do. As an all-party group, we hope—again, through the good offices of the FCO—to have an early opportunity to raise our concerns with the ambassadors in London of ASEAN countries. They hold regular meetings to discuss areas of common concern, and we hope to put to them the case for their added involvement in bringing about democratic change in Burma.
Through colleagues and friends in the European Parliament who are sympathetic to our cause, the all-party group hopes to spread that kind of lobbying through all the member states of the European Union so that MEPs do the same thing to the ambassadors of the ASEAN countries in their countries. That, I hope, will bring about a change of attitude in the ASEAN group.
I also hope that the Government will take up the matter again with Burma's closest trading partners, India and Bangladesh—who are not members of the ASEAN group—with whom, I believe, we have some influence. The circumstances in India and Burma could hardly be more different. They came to independence within a year of each other, but India has prospered from 50 years of stable democracy, while Burma has been stifled and has regressed in 40 years of military oppression.
In parallel with the initiatives in international diplomacy, the Government should give more prominence to the promotion of the disinvestment campaign being waged by the Burma Campaign UK. In that context, we welcome the Prime Minister's strong reply to a question put to him during Question Time last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin). He suggested that there was a need to take a stronger line with British companies investing in Burma.
The next target in the campaign is clear: it is the company with the biggest British investment in Burma, British American Tobacco. We need to campaign jointly to persuade that company to disinvest. No one could have put the arguments for disinvestment better than BAT's vice-chairman himself, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He made the point forcefully in a letter to a constituent, in which he said that he
"sometimes feels uncomfortable about investment"
78WH in Burma, and that the problem in Burma arises
"when companies start collaborating with an extremely unpleasant regime which is totally contrary to our notions of civil liberties and democracy".
Surely, the events of the past few weeks show that the regime cannot get any more unpleasant; nor can the activities and ideology—if there is one—of the Government of General Than Shwe be viewed as anything other than totally contrary to all the notions of civil liberties and democracy that we hold dear in this country. It is now time for the board of BAT and its vice-chairman to do the right and honourable thing, put principle before profit, and take the decision to disinvest from Burma today. Anything that the Government can do to aid us in our campaign will be very welcome.
I would like to deal with the plight of the numerous ethnic groups, who make up more than 20 per cent. of the Burmese population, and who have faced years of genocide and repression by the regime. As a group, we are being kept closely in touch with the continuing brutal campaign against these groups by the Burmese army—which is partially being undertaken, it appears, to create the economic infrastructure to enable western industrial concerns to make a profit out of their trading relationships and partnerships within that country. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of people have been dispossessed, forced to flee and take refuge in the refugee camps just over the border in Thailand. I am sure that some hon. Members who contribute today will be able to give personal accounts of their visits to those refugee camps. Many of the NGOs that attend the all-party parliamentary group meetings are involved in providing aid and advocacy for the refugees and the separate ethnic groupings.
Whatever happens as a result of our campaign to bring about the restoration of democracy, whether it succeeds or fails, the groups and their welfare must continue to be a priority for ourselves as parliamentarians and for the Government. When change is achieved, as it surely eventually must be, the rights, aspirations, autonomy and welfare of all Burmese people and all the minorities there must be safeguarded and protected by law and by a new constitution for a new Burma, which we wish to see rising like a phoenix from the ashes and the poverty of the present anarchic economic system of military government.
My first awareness of Burma came from my father's wartime reminiscences, as a Burma Star veteran who fought at Kohima, crossed the Irrawaddy, and ended up in Mandalay, in what was often referred to as Slim's forgotten 14th Army. Burma and its domestic situation continue to be a distant, forgotten area of interest for many in the UK and throughout the world. Having said that, I readily acknowledge the consistent efforts of the present Government to reverse that situation. I hope that they take encouragement from this debate and from the constructive suggestions made on how to proceed, and on how parliamentarians can assist them.
I am glad to have been able to set today's debate in motion. I look forward to hearing the contributions of the many Members who have come along to take part, and the Minister's considered, concluding reply. The campaign goes on. In conclusion, I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to thank Mr. Speaker for using his discretion to allow this very important debate to go ahead today.
§ Bob Spink (Castle Point)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke). He was right to ask for this debate, which is long overdue. I am delighted to be able to contribute.
I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman said, so I shall try not to repeat it. Much Government and international concern about Burma has been focused on the plight of the pro-democracy movement and the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. While those are very important issues, relatively little international focus has been given to the systematic atrocities inflicted by the Burmese military on the Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic peoples, so I shall focus on that issue.
The atrocities include summary executions, rape, forced relocations, destruction of villages and crops, and forced labour. More than 650,000 Karen, Karenni and Shan have been internally displaced and more than 200,000 refugees have fled to Thailand. They initially had good treatment from Thailand, but I think that the Thai Government now need to refocus on the treatment given to those groups on the Thai-Burmese border. They should ensure that they are not seeking to extradite them back to the Burmese military regime, where they will suffer atrocities in the border region, and that the international community can get food and medical aid to the internally displaced people there. I thank the Thai Government for what they have done, but I ask them to look at what is happening at the moment. They have lost a little focus, and perhaps they could refocus on the humanitarian problems.
Many displaced people are hiding in the jungle with little or no food or medicine, and they are sometimes shot on sight by Burmese troops. I can think of no other country in the world where so many displaced people are subjected to a shoot on sight policy, which is utterly unacceptable. The human rights group the Jubilee Campaign believes that the systematic atrocities against ethnic minorities by the Burmese military amount to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined under international law. I agree with that assessment. Burma's regime is not only anti-democratic, it is also an evil, criminal regime, which has committed and continues to commit serious crimes under international law. I have visited some internally displaced Karen people in Burma, and was appalled to hear their first-hand witness accounts of the many atrocities that their people have suffered.
The British Government and European Union have measured progress in Burma mainly by focusing on whatever improvements have taken place in political developments, including the release of political prisoners and progress in democratic reforms. While those are very important, the prisoners represent fewer than 1,000 people and it is deeply disturbing that the British Government are not treating the systematic atrocities against the Karen, Karenni and Shan people as just as important, particularly in view of the hundreds of thousands involved. Those people might not have a voice or international clout in the way that Aung San Suu Kyi and the political prisoners have, but each life is important.
In the Foreign Office's human rights annual report 2002, the last two lines of the section on Burma state:
"We shall continue to respond proportionately to political developments in Burma. But should progress stall or fail, our policy will…harden."
80WH There is reference only to political developments and not to the possibility of hardening British policy on Burma because of the military regime's atrocities against the ethnic minorities. Ministers have not been in the Burmese jungle recently, as I have, but they will be aware of witnesses' reports of the atrocities and deprivation experienced by hundreds of thousands of people from ethnic groups in the Burmese jungle.
The Government have refused to accept that the Karen, Karenni and Shan are facing genocide, but curiously they have never given detailed or clear reasons why. It is not enough for the Government to claim, as they have in the past, that Amnesty International has not called the human rights abuses genocide. Amnesty's researcher on Burma stated clearly only last week that he has not investigated whether it is genocide. Amnesty has simply not addressed the issue. If the Government believe that there is no genocide in Burma, they should give detailed reasons for that conclusion, including reasons for believing that the legal definition of genocide given in the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes of genocide does not fit the facts of the Karen, Karenni and Shan situation, which I can testify to because I have seen it at first hand.
For many years, unarmed Karen, Karenni and Shan civilians have been deliberately killed by Burmese soldiers in what is clearly a blatant breach of common article 3 of the Geneva convention, which specifically prohibits the killing of civilians who do not take an active part in hostilities. Those atrocities have been well documented by the UN special rapporteur on Burma and by several independent human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Jubilee Campaign, the Karen Human Rights Group and the Shan Human Rights Foundation. It is, therefore, obvious that war crimes are being inflicted on the Karen, Karenni and Shan, and that in itself should be enough to justify the UN Security Council setting up an international criminal tribunal to try Burma's military regime. That would certainly focus the regime's mind. Furthermore, the International Labour Organisation in its report on Burma states that the systematic use of forced labour amounts to a crime against humanity. That gives us yet another reason why an international criminal tribunal on Burma could and should be set up.
With the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister, Margherita Boniver, said that the European Union will consider in detail the possibility of submitting the issue to the UN Security Council. The Government should ensure that any such considerations by the EU include submitting to the UN Security Council the State Peace and Development Council's systematic atrocities against the ethnic minorities. While the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners in Burma is grave—we all know that and want to do something about it—the situation of the Karen, Karenni and Shan is much worse, with rape, torture and summary executions being typical of what they must endure, not to mention the destruction of their villages, which drives them into a jungle existence without proper food, education for their children or medical care. I spoke to a child who looked about nine or 10, but was 14 and had never had a day's education. They do not even have clean water. I met that child as she was walking two miles to collect water in an old petrol can.
81WH The solution to the desperate plight of the ethnic minorities is not simply to wait until democracy comes to Burma. No one knows when that will happen, and it may take some time. The ethnic minorities are engaged in a daily and desperate struggle to survive, and they need our help now. Thousands have died as a result of Burmese military atrocities, and thousands more will perish unless the international community acts right now to put maximum pressure on the Burmese regime to stop the killings.
European Union sanctions against Burma should be linked not only to the Burmese regime's conduct regarding political prisoners and democratic reform, but to its stopping its atrocities against ethnic minorities. It should be given a clear message by the British Government and the EU that unless it stops the atrocities, sanctions will get a lot tougher. Furthermore, the Government should urgently raise the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan at the UN Security Council, where they should lobby for a global arms and investment embargo against Burma. The British Government should also ban all new investment by British companies in Burma, as has been done in the US, and call on the UN Security Council to set up an international criminal tribunal to try the Burmese regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East rightly mentioned BAT in his speech. The chairman of BAT, Martin Broughton, told the media,
"We'll do business in countries if it is legal to do so."
That proves the hon. Gentleman's point that nothing short of a legal ban on investment will stop British companies. Exhortations from the Prime Minister will help, but they will not stop those companies, as the chairman of BAT has said.
§ The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
The hon. Gentleman is talking about British companies, in the plural. From my inquiries, I am not aware that more than one British company—BAT—is involved.
§ Bob Spink
I acknowledge the Minister's point. Premier Oil has withdrawn, but it withdrew because of economic pressures and not because of exhortations from the Government. If the Government had a formal policy to make it illegal for companies to trade with Burma, it would give a clear signal to the international community and to Burma. It would also give a signal to countries near Burma with which we trade such as Thailand. Without strong sanctions, it is difficult to get the Burmese regime to take our concerns about human rights and democracy seriously. Short of military force, the only sanctions are a criminal tribunal or trade sanctions, and I encourage the Minister to think about them carefully.
The Burmese regime has made great play of the release of political prisoners and the secret dialogue with the National League for Democracy. However, we must focus on what is happening to the ethnic minorities in the jungle as a result of abuses by the Burmese military. Formalised trade sanctions and an international
82WH tribunal are the best ways to protect ethnic minorities and to force the military regime to democratise, which would allow us to move forward in Burma.
§ Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
I want to endorse much of what has been said. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing this extremely important debate.
My hon. Friend referred to BAT, and I shall continue in that vein before considering general sanctions. BAT's Burmese subsidiary is Rothmans of Pall Mall Myanmar. As the Minister said, it is the only British company involved in Burma, and it appears to be oblivious to the atrocities. It is a 60:40joint venture with Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, which is owned and controlled by Burma's military regime, so the company is directly involved in the most intimate sense in supporting that regime and working in collaboration with it, and its finance is linked with the regime. That is reprehensible, and I was shocked to learn that the deputy chairman of the company is one of our own: the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I hope that he will listen to this debate and that, as a right hon. and learned Member, he will have to take account of the seriousness of the need to disinvest in Burma at this critical time.
BAT pays factory workers just 23p a day. The UN defines anyone living on less than 60p a day as living in extreme poverty. There can be no doubt whatever that the claims that are often made by international companies that they are putting much-needed income into the country just do not ring true. We are talking about slave labour in a country that endorses slave labour, and an industrial zone upgraded in 1996 to involve child labour, which the House has consistently condemned.
The Burma Campaign UK estimates that the joint venture earns the regime $400,000 a year. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democratic movement, has called on companies to stay out of the country. She said that foreign investment funds the regime and helps to keep it in power. It is on that point alone that I rose to speak. We can no longer merely threaten Burma with sanctions: we must impose them. The time when we can expect the regime to respond to threats and requests has passed. We know how difficult it has been even for the UN envoy to get permission to see Aung San Suu Kyi in prison.
I know, and I am sure that the Minister will tell us, that the UK is very concerned and wants to do more than the European Union has been willing to do. Our position has been that we should move within the EU as the most appropriate body through which to impose sanctions on Burma, but we have not been helped by the positions of Germany, France and Italy. I trust that their leaderships are beginning to change their views, given the current situation.
As we have already heard from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), the EU is far behind the United States. It is not the norm for me to ask for our Government to follow the United States in foreign policy, but I certainly do so this morning. The US imposed sanctions in 1997. All new investments in Burma were banned by the US as long ago as 1997. That
83WH was done with what I think was the largest majority vote—97 to one—in the Senate. The US has no doubt at all how serious the matter is.
The US Government have hinted that they will ask the UN Security Council to deal with Burma, but I urge our Government not even to wait for that to happen. I hope that it will happen, but let us not hesitate. Let us agree that the UK, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can refer the matter of Burma for action to that body. Article 39 of chapter 7 of the UN charter permits the imposition of economic sanctions, and has been used to impose them in the past—for example, in Haiti in 1993 and Southern Rhodesia in 1965. That can and should be done again in Burma.
As we all know, sanctions can impose great burdens on the peoples of the countries involved. That happened particularly tragically in Iraq. In South Africa, however, the effect of sanctions and all the political pressure certainly bore results over a period. Burma is neither South Africa nor Iraq. The Burmese regime would probably crumple fairly quickly if there were international targeted sanctions. We must certainly try for that, and I believe that the United Kingdom can lead the way. We must bear it in mind not only that BAT is in an appalling collaboration with the Burmese regime, but that many companies that have invested in Burma export their goods into the west. For all we know, many goods are coming into this country that were made in Burma.
Burmese exports include oil, gas, timber, gems, minerals and garments. Parliamentary questions have been asked in the House without success to find out which goods are imported into the United Kingdom from Burma. Can my hon. Friend the Minister give us any intelligence about that, because it is additional to the fact that a major British company may be collaborating with the regime? We ought to know such information, because retailers and wholesalers who are engaged in the trade should be named and shamed. It is unacceptable that garments and other goods made by slave labour—by people under the tyrannical regime—should be coming into this country. I want to know such information, because I do not wish to purchase anything that comes from Burma, and I should like to know that I am not doing so.
I know of the worries of my hon. Friend the Minister, the representations that he has made and his great commitment to end the horrible situation in Burma. However, we can take steps within the European Union and the Security Council. Should they not produce targeted sanctions—the result that we hope for—I urge the Government to follow the unilateral action that the United States has taken and impose an investment ban on Burma.
I pay tribute to my close friend, Glenys Kinnock MEP, who has done a great deal within the EU. Even now, she is striving to ensure that the matter is placed at the top of the agenda. I also pay tribute to the children at Edmund Waller primary school in my constituency, which I visited recently. They had chosen Aung San Suu Kyi as one of their world heroines. We discussed her and looked at photographs. There are 100 different mother tongues in my constituency. It was extremely touching that girls and boys from all ethnic groups were thinking about an individual who was so far away from them and their experiences, but whom they could identify as an
84WH extraordinary woman fighting for the democracy and freedom that we all hold dear in this country. It is a credit to children, especially primary school children, that they can have such a vision and want, as we do, the Burmese regime removed from the face of this earth.
§ 10.8 am
§ Dr. John Pugh (Southport)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing this crucial and timely debate. As a member of the all-party group on Burma, I wish to underline one or two things that have been said and flesh out others that have not been stressed loudly enough. We are debating not only a battle for democracy, but a battle against pure violation of democracy. We must remember that the election was won by the National League for Democracy in Burma in 1990 with 82 per cent. of the vote. I am sure that almost everyone here would regard that as a good democratic victory.
As has been said, we are witnessing a spectacle of appalling suffering genocide and abuse of human rights. The hon. Gentleman said that such a situation was, in some ways, remote from our problems. One thing that was perhaps not stressed enough is that this appalling regime is one of the world's major exporters of opium, which ultimately ends up on the streets of our countries. In a sense, its problems indirectly become our problems.
There seems to be an intractable problem, because the regime has an army of 400,000 people but few external threats with which to deal. One is reminded of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, which had a similar profile, and we know how long that lasted. We ought to be in no doubt that all hon. Members wish for regime change for all the right reasons, as I am sure the Government do. Although that aim is entirely laudable and should be supported by every parliamentarian, the means of achieving it seem rather difficult to identify. The EU has stiffened some of its sanctions and America has pursued a robust path of sanctions. I believe that 20 American states more or less outlaw any firms that have any commercial dealings with Burma. I am sure that the United Nations could be moved further to condemn the Burmese Government.
However, using the trade lever has a limited effect because Burma's major trading partners are, by and large, not those that stand for a tradition of democracy. It trades with China and the eastern bloc when routes to the west are barred. The House must welcome Japan's move—it has withdrawn $70 million in aid from Burma, which is no doubt making life more difficult for the Burmese Government. We must do everything we can to endorse such behaviour.
Sadly, the levers that we can pull to secure regime change, which we all want, are limited. However, that is no excuse for not pulling hard on those levers that we have. We in this country need to point to and praise the attitude of those firms that have, at commercial cost and by virtue of having some conscience, withdrawn from dealings with the Burmese regime. There is a laudable list of such firms, which includes Texaco, Levi-Strauss, Motorola, Heineken, Carlsberg, Amoco, C&A, Triumph International, and so forth. Just as we must point out good behaviour, we must, as hon. Members have done, heavily underline those who have not quite
85WH got the message. That applies to British American Tobacco—not only its board, but its shareholders and anybody who has a stake in the company. If there is to be regime change, for which we all heartily wish, it will be secured not by debate in this place but by a long-term global campaign. If this debate contributes a small amount to that, it will do a lot of good.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
I enter this debate as a newcomer, without anything like the long experience that some hon. Members have of this subject. Some of my constituents have been coming to me about this matter for some time. Eventually, I decided that it was time to find out what they were on about. I am convinced, partly through receiving tutorials from experts and partly through reading about it, that there is a problem with our approach to the matter. Some element of that has emerged in this debate.
Two valuable strands have been contributed today. First, there are those who are concerned about how to achieve, or promote and foster, regime change in a country where democracy is being denied and in which a notable proponent of democracy is being treated abominably—the House considers that to be so. Secondly, we have heard, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), a powerful account of the dreadful treatment of large numbers of people from the ethnic minorities in Burma.
When we talk about the pressure that could be exerted, which hon. Members have described most poignantly, I have a dreadful suspicion that we might help to achieve only part of what we desire. I imagine that the pressure being brought, and the greater pressure that might be brought, to bear could succeed in persuading the current regime to make way, gracefully or gracelessly, for a democratic regime, which would be a major advance.
However, it is not clear to me from what I have been told and what I have read—perhaps the Minister will offer an analysis that disproves it—that the result of such a regime change will necessarily be to displace the power of the army so completely that fears about the second strand of concern, the appalling acts against ethnic minorities, will be allayed. 'There might be an improvement, perhaps even a seismic improvement, in conditions for the Burman population through the achievement of democracy, but if the army retain sufficient control and a vested interest in what my hon. Friend described as genocide, that genocide could continue, notwithstanding its being in a moderated and modified form.
There is a grave danger that the House and the civilised world will go quietly to sleep about Burma. We will celebrate the arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi as the ruler of a democracy but appalling things may continue to be done against the minority groups for some years, and no one will be paying much attention to them. I exempt hon. Members who are present in the debate. My hon. Friend financed his own trip into the jungle, which he will not forget. I fear, however, that the subject will go off the media's radar. I see the Minister shaking his head and I take comfort from that. I am delighted to sense that the Government are alive to that possibility.
86WH It is extremely important that the two strands of the debate are brought together to ensure that increased pressure is exerted to achieve both aims, not one at the expense of the other.
§ Mr. Luke
I am sorry I did not raise it in my contribution to the debate, but the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that there is a Government in exile based in America, who are working with the many ethnic groups that have separate representations to consider the post-military government situation. That is relevant to the right hon. Gentleman's point, because it is one step in bringing about military regime change but, as he rightly said, the rights and autonomy of the ethnic groups in Burma are the second strand of the issue. Little attention has been paid to that, but it is on the agenda in other places where the nascent Government of Burma are considering the prospect.
§ Mr. Letwin
That is enormously reassuring. However, although the matter is in the public arena, it is said that the best way to keep a secret is to make a speech about it in the House of Commons and I fear today's debate may show that to be so. I doubt that we will read the observations that have been made today in the headlines tomorrow. Those headlines concern themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the fate of democracy in Burma, but there is a discrepancy in the amount of public attention paid to each side. It is enormously heartening if hon. Members and the Government clearly see the need to keep both strands together and to advance on both fronts as in due course it may encourage the media to take an equal interest in them.
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
I have spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi on several occasions in recent months. She is very concerned to ensure that the two issues are linked and to resolve the question of democracy. She is also committed to reaching an accommodation with the Karen and the Shan. There is no doubt that the resolution of the process of reform and democracy should also lead—Aung San Suu Kyi is conscious of this—to a resolution of the appalling atrocities that have been committed against ethnic minorities.
§ Mr. Letwin
I am even more heartened by that and I am grateful to the Minister for intervening. I apologise for the fact that I shall have left the Chamber by the time he speaks at the end of the debate.
I have no reason to doubt what the Minister said about the motive of the Government or Aung San Suu Kyi. It would be absurd for me to pretend that I have the slightest understanding of the intricacies of the relationship between a forthcoming democratic regime in Burma and the military authorities. I do not. My speculation may, therefore, be wholly false. However, I have worked in several countries in that region, and some in sub-Saharan Africa, with and for the Governments of those countries, which were to a greater or lesser extent democratically established.
On one occasion—it would be wrong for me to name the country in question—I took the military secretary to the Prime Minister out for a drink to understand why none of the things that were being decided by the Prime Minister in my presence were happening. Memorably,
87WH he told me, "We keep her very busy. We take her from parade to parade. We try to make sure that she never notices that nothing that she says ever happens." Democratic regimes in countries where there are powerful military authorities that do not have the same blessed relationship with the democratic regime as we experience do not find it easy to deal with that pattern of behaviour.
For a new, tenuously established democratic regime, there is a risk if the military is sufficiently alienated that the benefits the regime will convey to the country by being democratic will be undone by a coup. That tension is often difficult to resolve. I do not doubt the Minister's motive or that of San Suu Kyi. It is heartening to hear what he said. I hope that if we help to achieve the first step, it will also be the policy of Her Majesty's Government to keep an eagle eye on the matter, and to strengthen the democratic regime against possible military interference.
§ Bob Spink
I support my right hon. Friend's theme. He is wise to raise the spectre of a democratic solution while atrocities by the military against ethnic groups continue. That would not be unprecedented. In Indonesia, there were democratic elections in 1999, but the atrocities against the people of West Papua by the Indonesian military continued for a number of years. In a regime with a strong military presence and strong separatist movements, which then has democratic elections, there are all the ingredients for such problems. My right hon. Friend is right to follow that line.
§ Mr. Letwin
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the Minister. I am delighted that there appears to be a considerable degree of consensus on the issue. That is heartening and I hope that the Government will be able to make the media understand the matter in the same terms.
§ John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on his success in securing the debate this morning. He and I entered this House at the last general election, and from the contributions he has made in the past two years, I know of the interest he takes in international affairs and his commitment to human rights in Burma and elsewhere in the world.
Like other hon. Members, I have agreed with everything that has been said until now. I will not repeat the issue raised about British American Tobacco. A number of hon. Members agree that it is going to be difficult to have a major impact through sanctions alone because of the relatively limited amount of direct trade that Britain and the US have with Burma. We must increase pressures on neighbouring countries that are trading far more with Burma.
§ Joan Ruddock
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it would not be possible to get UN sanctions, to which China would have to adhere? It is my understanding that China has never voted against proposals concerning Burma. We might be able to persuade it to abstain, and not to stand in the way. What does the hon. Gentleman think of that possibility?
§ John Barrett
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Exerting pressure on countries such as China and other major trading nations that trade with Burma may be another way forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, it is not only legitimate trade that we should note; it is the impact of opium on our streets. Whether it is products in our shops or opium being traded illegally, we are all affected and we must continue to raise the issue, and today's debate does that.
When I first saw the title of the debate, "Democracy and human rights in Burma", I was tempted to suggest that it be changed to, "What democracy and what human rights in Burma?" As the hon. Member for Dundee, East pointed out in his opening remarks, and as we heard from others who have contributed to the debate, there is precious little in the way of human rights in Burma and, by any definition, democracy is nonexistent. Gaining 82 per cent. of the vote should be just reason to form a Government and to be in a position of influence; it is no reason for someone to be locked up in a prison cell.
Our debate serves to highlight the considerable parliamentary interest in Burma, which is shown also by the seven or eight early-day motions relating to Burma that have been tabled since the beginning of the year. Perhaps the most significant is early-day motion 1311, tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), which has now received the support of as many as 219 right hon. and hon. Members. They are quite right to be concerned. The story of Burma remains an immensely sad one; not only because of the fact that, despite its rich natural resources, it is a very poor country, but because of the religious persecution that was mentioned earlier, the use of child labour and the other human rights breaches that occur all too frequently.
It goes without saying that Liberal Democrats totally deplore the detainment of the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Minister is quite right to put as much pressure as he can on the relevant authorities for her release. The idea that she is being held in a two-room hut in a prison just outside Rangoon for her personal protection would be almost laughable if it were not so serious. Some hon. Members have mentioned that she was released from house arrest in May of last year. However, it is important to dispel the myth that she was free to roam as she wished between her release then and her capture one month ago.
Despite being told that no restrictions would be placed on her, she and her NLD team were faced with the most intense intimidation tactics and harassment as they tried to travel around the country. As others have said, promises of some political reform being made upon her release were broken, although I accept that hundreds of political prisoners were released; perhaps only to be further persecuted outside the prison cell. Nevertheless, as we have heard today, Burma's human rights record remains nothing short of shocking.
The unprecedented decision of the International Labour Organisation three years ago to take measures against Burma because of its continued use of child labour was a significant step. However, since that decision was taken, the ILO governing board has found
89WH little progress, the Burmese authorities being unwilling to tackle the exploitation of child labour and the starvation rates that were mentioned earlier in the debate.
Perhaps the most disturbing of all the images that we see are those of young children being signed up as part of the Burmese military forces, where they are mistreated. Today, Burma has by a long way the highest number of child soldiers in the world. I strongly recommend to hon. Members the report of Human Rights Watch into child soldiers in Burma entitled "My Gun was as Tall as Me". It is hardly light reading. It gives a chilling but accurate description of how children as young as 11 are brought into the army, where they are subjected to beatings during training by their commanders and refused contact with their families.
One story in the report caught my eye. It was by an 11year-old boy, who said:
"On my journey, there was a checkpoint. The police stopped the car and checked ID cards. I couldn't show one. I was too young to have an ID card…the police said: 'You all have to go to jail for six years for not having an ID card.' Then they sent me to the police station and put me in the leg stocks. They kept saying, 'You have to decide. You can join the army or go to jail.' And then they gave me time to think. They could see I was only eleven but if the police give a boy to the army, they can get pocket money from the army, 3,000 kyat and two tins of rice. They gave me from 8 am until the afternoon to decide. I didn't want to go to jail for six years so I joined the army."
Those are frightening and frequent stories; stories that one would not expect to be told in 1903, let alone 2003.
However, as others have said, it is not just the children who are suffering. Ethnic minorities in Burma have faced the most malicious and violent treatment by the Burmese authorities, forcing cross-border tensions with neighbouring Thailand, to where many of those being persecuted flee. The statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made clear the international outrage over the way that minorities such as the Karen, Shan and Karenni were being treated, as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned earlier.
Again, such outrage is justified. The Shan Women's Action Framework, in conjunction with the Shan Human Rights Foundation, published a report documenting the systemic rape of women and young girls in the Shan state by the Burmese army. The report not only described how most rapes were carried out in front of other officers, but revealed that one quarter of the attacks ended in death. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) would have liked to be here this morning to raise this issue, but unfortunately she cannot be here owing to other parliamentary business. Those atrocities may not involve weapons of mass destruction or threaten our security, but we in the international community cannot stand by and allow such shocking attacks to happen.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I make no apology for bringing into the debate the major humanitarian problems that have been allowed to develop. Burma is gripped in the stranglehold not only of HIV, which has now reached epidemic proportions, but of malaria and tuberculosis. Since I am one of those people who believes that education plays a
90WH great part in preventative health care, I am concerned that less than 1 per cent. of gross domestic product is spent on health and education in Burma, one of the lowest levels in the world. I very much welcome the commitment that the Department for International Development has made; some £10 million alone for HIV/AIDS preventative measures.
However, I wonder if there is still room for the Government to take a greater role on such matters, yet without associating themselves directly with the regime. In DFID's 2003 Departmental report—a Comprehensive 157-page document only one paragraph related to Burma. Moreover, Burma got a mere one sentence mention in the Foreign Office annual report, on page 74. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Government to bring Burma higher up the agenda, although I appreciate the work that has already been done. Without wishing to break the political consensus that has emerged this morning, I think that the Government, who have been so focused on countries such as Iraq and Iran, would do well to focus more on countries such as Burma and Zimbabwe, where people are facing serious breaches in basic human rights.
There have been a lot of strong statements from Foreign Office Ministers and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary himself. That was reiterated just last week by the Prime Minister in an answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin). However, the time for words must be coming to an end and the time for action is long overdue. However, we in the Liberal Democrats very much welcome the action that has already been taken, particularly through the strengthened EU position. Of course, we should not trade in arms or any other equipment that could be used for repression in Burma. Travel bans and sanctions need to be introduced as appropriate but, at the same time, we must ensure that all action that is taken seeks to minimise the impact on the ordinary Burmese people, who have already suffered too much under that terrible regime. Perhaps there is still action that the Government could take, although I regret that there is still not consensus in the UN Security Council on the issue. I hope that the Government will continue to work hard to forge such a consensus, so that the international community can stand united and say that the practices occurring in Burma are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
§ Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing this debate, which is very timely. The debate this morning has been extraordinarily good and on an important subject that should concern us all. Recent events in Burma have served to underline what we have known for some time: that the regime is intent on preserving its power, whatever the cost to Burma and its people.
I have particular memories of Burma, having visited it some years ago. It is a beautiful place, with breathtaking landscapes. Its people practise a particularly peaceful form of Buddhism, which has enriched the landscape with many stunning temples. The Burmese are a gentle, good and proud people, and deserve better than the Government whom they now have.
91WH I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee, East for talking about minorities in Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) dealt most graphically and powerfully with their tragic problems, and we owe him a debt for his insights.
Sadly, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is no longer present, but he made a valid point about bringing the various strands together. I could not but wryly observe, however, that Potemkin village syndrome can also apply in quite advanced democracies.
In 1993, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—as he now is—warned of
"a brutal and despotic regime that cares nothing for human rights".—[Official Report, 30 March 1993; Vol. 222, c. 330.]
He was talking not about the regimes of Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein but about Burma's junta. There was widespread support for his view and for the action taken by John Major's Government in July 1991 to instigate an EU arms embargo on Burma. In 1994, the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Alastair Goodlad, said:
"As the situation has deteriorated, the United Kingdom, with our European Union partners, has taken a leading role at the United Nations general assembly and at the Commission on Human Rights, to gain consensus support for tough resolutions calling for the unconditional release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders and in denouncing the human rights violations reported by Professor Yokota."—[Official Report, 21 July 1994; Vol. 247, c. 632.]
His words demonstrated that the then Government were taking the issue seriously. Unfortunately, the situation continued to deteriorate, and too little was done then or in the ensuing years to resolve the problem.
We have heard about the democratically elected leader of the Burmese people being imprisoned once again. On 31 May, she and 19 other members of the National League for Democracy were arrested. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, the regime's claims that she had been taken into protective custody have been rubbished, and we have learned that at least 70 people lost their lives in the attack.
As we have heard, Aung San Suu Kyi is being held in a particularly notorious prison. She can be detained without access to her family or lawyers for 180 days at a time, and for up to five years, with no prospect of appeal. That is a grotesque violation of her human rights. Every parliamentarian should find it profoundly shocking that the democratically elected leader of a Government is being denied access to her electorate. I cannot believe that any hon. Member could fail to be moved by the plight of this utterly remarkable woman, by her incredible stand against the forces of tyranny, which constantly rage against her, and by the appalling way in which she has been treated.
Despite the situation, Aung San Suu Kyi remains an inspiration to her people. In the face of personal hardships, she continues to pursue a peaceful path and she has not been tempted by violence. Unfortunately, the peace process that she and the UN ambassador have been pursuing is failing, despite their good will and sincere efforts.
On 12 June, Colin Powell wrote that
"the time has come to turn up the pressure"
92WH on Burma's junta. I want now to consider how that might best be accomplished, and I freely acknowledge the Minister's efforts in this regard. Foreign investment can undoubtedly have a positive effect in many developing countries, but to be blunt, the opposite appears to be true m Burma. Foreign investment has provided the regime with the money that it needs to cling on to power and has enabled it to double the size of its army. A country of only 47 million people, with no external enemies, has one of the largest armies in Asia. At the same time, the people of Burma have become poorer, as resource allocation—based on political prerogatives instead of social need—continues to be debased.
It has been argued that ending investment will hurt the people of Burma. That must be avoided, as their suffering is already so great. However, it is vital to understand that Burma is a mainly agricultural country, with 75 per cent. of its population living in rural areas. The energy sector benefits the regime and foreign companies. Similarly, the gem and timber trades benefit regional commanders and the regime's business associates. The garment industry is 90 per cent. owned by the regime. The vast majority of rural and urban dwellers are not involved in those industries, so the money that they make is not spent on the people by a benevolent regime but used to prop up a tyrannical one. Though investment flows have dropped dramatically since 1998, future revenue from those ventures will help the regime to neglect and postpone essential reforms. On 19 June, the Minister made a commitment that the
"international community will not stand idly by while the military regime continues to abuse the democratic and human rights of Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma."
If the Government are truly intent on keeping that promise—I accept the Minister's sincerity—they must make a concerted effort to limit commerce. Taking up the powerful point of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan R uddock), Britain should press for a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to all investment in Burma so long as the military regime remains in power, arid for sanctions on certain Burmese exports, including oil, gas, timber, gems, minerals and garments.
The Minister will be aware that in opposition his party backed targeted investment sanctions. I make no political point, but can he confirm that that is still its position in government and tell us what steps are being taken to implement that policy in conjunction with others? The United States and Italian Governments have hinted that they will press for a new resolution. Does the Minister agree that if the UK took the initiative now, the added momentum might compel the Security Council to take action on Burma? Should we not use the strength of UK-Chinese relations to achieve such co-operation? What discussions have the British Government had with other Security Council members on the prospect of a new resolution on Burma?
In the absence of Security Council agreement, we should like to see Britain push for an EU investment ban. I have discussed the idea with representatives of the Governments of other EU member states and there is widespread support for it. Historically, the EU common position has been weaker than the UK might have wanted, and unless recent events have shifted thinking on Burma, the EU will lag behind US policy. Does the
93WH Minister share my concerns, and will he confirm that the British Government will be pressing for EU Ministers to put Burma on the agenda of the Asia-Europe meeting, or ASEM, in Bali on 23 and 24 July?
Burma's military regime shamelessly calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, but it fails US State Department grades on human rights, trafficking in persons and drugs, and international religious freedom. As we speak, more than 1,000 people are detained in Burmese prisons for political reasons. There is hope of strong action. There are signs that the ASEAN countries have had enough of the broken promises and abuses of the regime. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) observed, last week, Japan cut off aid in a hugely symbolic move. What aid do we give to Burma, if any, and is there scope to copy the Japanese? Wider international pressure would, I hope, lead to the immediate and permanent release or Aung San Suu Kyi. However, we must not be content with that. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in hoping that the new focus on Burma—and there is a new focus on Burma—can be a catalyst for the release of all political prisoners there; for National League for Democracy offices and universities to be reopened; for the SPDC immediately to end extra-judicial killings, systematic rape and political intimidation; and for a genuine democratic process to emerge, leading towards a Government elected by the people and ruling for the people. That is exactly what is not happening in Burma at the moment.
§ The Minister for Trade and estment (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) for providing the opportunity for us to discuss an issue that is very important not only for Britain but for the whole international community. I know of his strong support for democracy and human rights in Burma, from his work with the all-party group. I am also aware of the wide support that the campaign for democracy and human rights in Burma, including the campaign for human rights for ethnic minorities in that benighted country, enjoys on both sides of the House.
In common with all those who have spoken today, I am deeply concerned about the recent events in Burma. In recent months, the Government have been working hard to encourage dialogue between the regime in Burma and the National League for Democracy. I used to speak regularly to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about that, but my repeated attempts to speak to her since her detention on 30 May have been rebuffed by the regime.
We had received information that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was being detained in Insein jail. We are today picking up reports from a French press agency that she has been moved from Insein jail and is now elsewhere. The reports appear not to know where, and whether they are entirely true, I cannot say. We are attempting to get further information from our sources. Clearly it is a matter of enormous concern that a Nobel peace prize winner who has become a personification of the worldwide campaign for human rights and democracy should be detained by a brutal regime such as that in Burma.
94WH I am inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi's resolute commitment to the peaceful pursuit of her objectives in Burma. She embodies the hopes of the people of Burma, commanding respect and admiration inside the country and throughout the international community. Large crowds have flocked to her in every corner of the country to which she has travelled. The generals know that those crowds demonstrate the true wishes of the people of Burma. The people want the leaders for whom they voted overwhelmingly in 1990. By its repressive actions, the regime betrays its fear of "the Lady", as she is universally known in Burma. It says that Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for her own protection. In fact, she is being detained for the protection of the regime against the people.
The regime's malign rule in Burma is clear for all to see. The generals have no ideology other than the maintenance of power and the cynical abuse of that power for their own purposes. Human rights abuse against ethnic minorities, as detailed by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), and against the Burmese people themselves, is the regime's chosen instrument for enforcing its position. Ethnic minority groups in Burma suffer the abuses and the destruction of their human rights disproportionately, through extrajudicial killing, forced labour, rape, forced relocation and even the burning of entire communities.
The British Government have been at the forefront of international efforts to press for an end to human rights violations in Burma. Successive resolutions, cosponsored by the British, have been passed in the UN General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. We also helped to lead the way for the International Labour Organisation to implement measures against Burma because of the scandalous use of forced labour there.
The regime might seek to sweep such concerns under the carpet by routinely banning foreign reporters and denying international access to large parts of Burma, even by the United Nations. However, we shall continue to draw attention to the harsh reality of its rule. With its litany of other faults, the regime's economic incompetence and ignorance are often overlooked, but it is important to highlight the sheer incompetence of the regime, which is having such a detrimental effect on the people of Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East compared Burma with India, and we see there what damage such a regime can do to the economy, driving its people into poverty. A country that is rich in human and natural resources is being driven towards economic disaster. It is a shocking and unnecessary road to ruin. Why is the old rice bowl of Asia struggling to feed its people? Why has foreign investment dried up? Why are the few companies still investing in Burma voting with their feet? Premier Oil, for example, is withdrawing its support.
Trade with and investment in foreign countries, even those with democratic shortfalls, is not inherently bad for human rights and democracy in those countries. However, in Burma, the regime cynically manipulates trade and investment to help to support its continued misrule and for personal gain. Those factors are specific to the regime, which is why, as the Prime Minister made clear in the House last week, we do not believe that to trade with or invest in Burma is appropriate while the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of
95WH its people. We are making that clear to British companies, and this morning I shall meet the chairman of British American Tobacco, which was saddled with a problematic investment in Burma as a result of a merger in the 1990s.
The Government do not encourage tourists to visit or companies to invest in Burma. I shall take to my meeting with the chairman of BAT the views of both Government and Opposition Members who have expressed serious concern about a company continuing to have investment in Burma. I shall be able to report that to the chairman, to whom I shall be speaking within the hour.
The Government are committed to having serious discussions with BAT and anyone else involved in trade with Burma. I was particularly concerned at the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) that some other companies may be purchasing garments in Burma to import to the United Kingdom. I shall certainly look into that and see whether we can find ways of speaking to those companies, if they are British companies.
In 1998, the late Derek Fatchett wrote to travel associations in Britain explaining why the Government were concerned about their encouragement of travel in Burma. In the light of the deteriorating situation there, I propose to write to all travel organisations with any links with tourism in Burma. There are very few of them, but if any are involved, we shall target them and ask them not to allow, encourage or participate in tourism in Burma. Some people go to Burma for their own reasons, and we want to discourage them from doing so.
We need a wide strategy to deal with the problem and our approach has been that when Burma has moved towards reform and democracy, we have encouraged it. For a period last year, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the increasing freedom that was being given to her, it looked as though the process was under way, but it then stalled. There was no explanation, and radio silence from the Burmese regime. We did not know why it had suddenly stopped the process, and it was clear in my conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi that she did not know why. However, it did stop and went into reverse, so we must ensure that we send an even clearer message. Over time, the regime will find that the international community will tighten the restrictions on it.
As a number of hon. Members have said, we must ensure that sanctions do not hurt the Burmese people whom we are trying to help, and are specifically targeted against the regime's leaders, and we will seek to get that balance right. However, if the regime starts to carry out reforms and to move towards democracy, and it enters into discussions and frees Aung San Suu Kyi, we will take that into account as our policy develops. There is a clear strategy of encouragement for reform, if it is taking place, but a clear view that a failure to reform will not be ignored by the international community.
We have taken a strong EU common position, which contains an arms embargo, and bans on defence links, on high-level visits, on the sale of items that can be used for repression and torture, and on non-humanitarian assistance, as well as an assets freeze and travel ban on the regime, its families and their cronies. Many hon. Members have mentioned action against Burmese 96WH exports, and we have already taken some action in that area. The EU has suspended Burma's trading privileges and we have written to all British employers and workers groups informing them of the use of forced labour in Burma and advising them to have nothing to do with Burma.
As an initial step after the latest crackdown by the regime, the EU strengthened its common position on 16 June. I stress that that was an initial step and that we are actively considering with partners what further action may be necessary if the regime does not see sense soon. UK and EU action to date has been effective, and we must therefore continue to act in partnership with the EU and others around the world. UK diplomatic, trading and investment links with Burma are already very limited, but a collective approach will be needed to achieve a further significant tightening of pressure. We are talking to the Americans about how that can best be done, and we welcome the strong statements by President Bush and Colin Powell. We also welcome the very firm position taken by the Japanese, who have announced that they will cease all economic assistance to the regime because of its recent actions. We are actively consulting them and other major players, including the Chinese and Indian Governments.
If we were to fail to get a resolution in the Security Council, the Burmese regime would see it as a victory. We must therefore proceed with care by talking to the Chinese and other countries to see whether we can achieve consensus to allow us to take further action in international forums such as the UN. Let there be no doubt that we are seriously concerned about the matter and that we will be making those inquiries. I shall be travelling to China this month, where I shall talk to the Chinese about that other issues, and I shall also be in Washington in the next couple of weeks, where I shall talk to the Americans about that and other issues. I shall also be going to the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Bali, where I will talk to Burma's neighbours about the need for them to show that they, too, care about the human rights situation of not only the people who support Aung San Suu Kyi but the ethnic minority communities, which have been subjected to continual atrocities.
The message must go out from the House that Members of all parties will not allow the issue to die. Aung San Suu Kyi's position will remain at the forefront of our efforts. We will also make sure that the deep worries that exist in the international community are not left as words but are followed up by actions, which means that clear messages must be sent. The way in which the economy of Burma has developed must be addressed, but the regime and its leaders will find that the international corimunity will target them and their cronies for further sanctions.
Burmese democracy enjoys overwhelming support in Britain and throughout the world because it embodies our, British, core hopes and values, too. The Burmese people want nothing more than what we want for them and have for ourselves: freedom and the ability to determine their leaders, rather than having to rely on a bunch of dictators and old generals. The time for change in Burma is now. We want to use all the pressure that we can to secure that change.