September 6th, 2017
House of Commons Debate, 5th September 2017: Urgent question on violence in Rakhine State
The following transcript has been taken of the urgent question asked in the House of Commons on 5th September about the violence in Rakhine State, Burma.
For the televised recording of this debate, please see the Parliament website. This debate can be found at 15:42:57.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the recent violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.
The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for raising this matter and giving the Government the opportunity to detail the significant action we have taken. Overnight on 24 August, members of the Rohingya militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army—the ARSA—attacked numerous police posts in northern Rakhine. Even in the days prior to that escalation of hostilities, our embassy in Rangoon had been monitoring the situation very carefully, including travelling to the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe. We understand that tens of thousands of people have crossed the border into Bangladesh.
Kofi Annan’s Rakhine advisory commission report was published immediately prior to the attacks. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I issued a joint statement at that time welcoming the report, but also condemning the attacks by Rohingya militants on Burmese security forces. At the same time, the UK strongly urged the security forces in Rakhine to show restraint and called for all parties to de-escalate the tensions.
On 30 August, at the UK’s request, the UN Security Council discussed the situation in Rakhine. Our UK representative in New York led the condemnation of attacks by Rohingya militants, and urged a measured and proportionate response from the security forces. We also called for humanitarian aid to reach those in need as soon as possible and offered UK support for the Rakhine advisory commission, encouraging the international community to do likewise. The recent violence serves to underline how important it is to address the long-term issues in Rakhine and deliver for all communities; it should not deflect the Burmese Government from the key task of addressing the underlying issues that have caused people to flee. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, it is vital that the civilian Government of Burma receive the support of the Burmese military, and that Aung San Suu Kyi is not thwarted in her attempts to stabilise the situation.
Along with de-escalating the fighting, our immediate priority is how urgent food and medical assistance can be provided to displaced citizens from all communities. Our ambassador in Rangoon has rightly been lobbying the Burmese Government on that, and they have confirmed that they are trying to get humanitarian aid through to communities most in need. As many will know, that is being hampered by the security situation and by inter-communal tensions.
Our high commissioner in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has also discussed the increasingly acute humanitarian situation with the Government there, and I discussed the situation with the Bangladeshi high commissioner last week. I look forward to discussing these issues further tomorrow at a meeting arranged some weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), the co-chair of the all-party group on Burma, as well as to paying a ministerial visit to Burma in the near future.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I am a little disappointed by the Minister’s response, as he started by suggesting that somehow the Rohingya Muslims and these people had caused this to occur. He must be aware that for a number of years there has been the systematic rape, murder, burning and beheading of people from the Rohingya community. If it is suggested that there may have been some attacks on the police stations, that is not a sufficient reason to attempt almost to explain away what the Burmese Government are now doing to these people. Everyone knows that for years now that the Government, the security forces and the Buddhist monks have been ransacking and killing people—murdering and raping women and children. This is only a climax to the brutality that the Burmese have been carrying out against these people.
Is the Minister aware that because of what has happened recently, many young children have been beheaded and civilians have been burned alive by the military forces? Is he aware that 120,000 Rohingya have fled for their lives to Bangladesh? Will he actually condemn this campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims? Is he aware that Human Rights Watch has satellite imagery showing the destruction of entire Rohingya villages, and that there are reports of people there being rounded up into huts and burned alive? Recent reports also show a massive cover-up by the soldiers who have carried out massacres of Rohingya, by gathering their bodies up and burning them.
This is one of the worst outbreaks of violence in decades, yet the international community is, in effect, remaining silent as we watch another Srebrenica and Rwanda unfold before our eyes. Does the Minister agree that the situation requires urgent intervention? What concrete action have the Government and the Prime Minister taken to date to deal with it? Is he aware that UN aid and monitors have not been allowed in? Will the Government make further representations to the UN Security Council about the ethnic cleansing now taking place? Can consideration be given to an immediate intervention by the UN Security Council to deal with this situation? As journalist Peter Oborne said in this morning’s Daily Mail:
“The Rohingya people were loyal allies of Britain in World War II. Now they face their darkest hour.”
We must take immediate action to help them, and I am very sorry about, and disappointed in, the Minister’s starting response.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is so disappointed; had she heard what I had to say, it would have been clear that we have been monitoring this situation for some time. Indeed, through diplomatic sources, we have made sure that our heartfelt concerns have been heard. It was thanks to a British lead that the issue was discussed at the UN over the past week. One has to remember that obviously a huge amount of attention has been given to issues relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which the House will discuss later.
The hon. Lady asked precisely what we are now doing. It is worth pointing out some aspects of the humanitarian aid we are going to put in place. As she is well aware, the UK has rightly and proudly been one of the largest development and humanitarian donors to Burma, and particularly to the Rakhine state, over many years. Since 2012, the Department for International Development has provided more than £30 million in humanitarian assistance, including for food and sanitation, for more than 126,000 people. More important, given the unfolding situation, the UK is the largest single bilateral donor supporting displaced Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable communities that host them in Bangladesh. DFID has allocated some £20.9 million for humanitarian aid responses between 2017 and 2022.
Because of the acute nature of the problems, to which the hon. Lady referred, we will keep an eye on exactly what happens. Please rest assured that the Government will do all they can to condemn when condemnation is the right way forward, but she is well aware that the politics of Burma are incredibly tense and difficult. We have hopefully moved away from a 55-year period of military rule. As far as we can, the international community should support civilian rule under Aung San Suu Kyi.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. There is substantial interest in this question, which I am keen—up to a point—to accommodate, but colleagues will be aware that there are three ministerial statements to follow, in which there can be expected to be substantial interest. Colleagues from Back and Front Benches alike need to help me to help them. There will be a premium upon brevity, now to be brilliantly exemplified by Mr Tom Tugendhat.
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
How is my right hon. Friend’s relationship with China going? As we all remember, the Chinese influence in the seeking of a peace agreement in some of the northern areas of Burma was instrumental in delivering humanitarian effects like those we wish to achieve in the Rakhine state. Will he say a little more about the Bangladeshi Government, and perhaps praise them for their extraordinary work in welcoming so many Muslim Rohingya people? I welcome the Foreign Office’s efforts in supporting that work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I was in Beijing only 10 days ago; he will appreciate that attention was focused largely on the DPRK and, to an extent, issues relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suspect we will have a chance before too long to discuss the issues relating to Burma with counterparts in China. I echo my hon. Friend’s words about the Bangladeshi authorities, with whom I had a strong relationship as a member and officer of the all-party group on Bangladesh for some seven years before I took up ministerial office. He is absolutely right that a terrific amount of work has taken place, and it will continue to take place in what is a fraught situation.
Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab)
The vast majority of Rohingyas want nothing but peace, but it is they who have suffered most as a result of the violence committed, supposedly in their name, by a small number of armed militants. Because of so-called collective punishment for such attacks, more than 100,000 innocent Rohingya men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes in a campaign that UN officials say may amount to ethnic cleansing. Many displaced Rohingyas have ended up in squalid camps, and, according to UN figures published today, some 35,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh in the past 24 hours alone. There, and in Myanmar itself, these families are in desperate need of our aid.
I am sure the Minister will share the deep disappointment of many Members of this House at the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian Government, to speak out more forcefully against human rights abuses in Rakhine. It is, though, General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, who of course bears ultimate responsibility for the army’s atrocities. It is he who ultimately must be held to account.
The Minister must do more than express disappointment, important though that is. The Government must do everything they can to help to bring an end to this senseless violence. Ministers must set clear and unambiguous red lines for Myanmar’s authorities—civilian and military—when it comes to respecting human rights. If those red lines are crossed, there should be consequences. For instance, in the light of recent events, it seems wholly inappropriate that in the past three years this Government have sold weapons worth more than half a million pounds to the Government of Myanmar.
Will the Minister now accept that his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence demonstrated shockingly poor judgment in spending a quarter of a million pounds—from the aid budget no less—on training members of Myanmar’s army? Will he also accept that it was a serious error of judgment for the Minister of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), to say by way of explanation that such programmes ensure that other countries learn about British values and human rights?
Does the Minister agree that it simply cannot be right for Britain to continue to provide military aid to a country where human rights abuses are so rampant? If he accepts that, will he demonstrate his Government’s commitment to the Rohingya people by immediately suspending military aid until Myanmar’s army can demonstrate that it is both able and willing to protect the rights of all the country’s citizens?
I thank the hon. Lady for her heartfelt comments. Those issues, which are clearly for the Ministry of Defence, will be under review, and I will ensure that her comments are passed on and that she is kept up to date. Contrary to some of the press reports, I think it is important to clarify precisely what the UK does provide. We do not provide any form of combat training to the Burmese military. The UK provides vocational courses, focused on language training, governance, accountability, ethics, human rights and international law. The UK rightly believes in using elements of our DFID money on programmes of real and lasting change. Such change will only come about from engaging with the Burmese military. Exposing them to how modern militaries operate in a democracy is more effective than isolating them. The content of the educational courses that we provide—the hon. Lady referred to a quarter of a million pounds—complies entirely with the UK’s commitments under the EU arms embargo.
Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)
There is more that the Government can do as a convening force, bringing together the countries that are involved with the Rohingya. There are problems not just in Rakhine or in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, but with the hideous trafficking of the Rohingya people down through Thailand and into Malaysia. Given the goodwill that we have in Bangladesh and Burma and, to a lesser extent, in Thailand and Malaysia, will the Foreign Office consider convening a meeting to look at this issue and at how we can improve the lives of these people?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his words. I know that he, having held the post that I now hold, has a lot of knowledge of the area. As I pointed out in my initial comments, after the violence broke out on 25 August, the UK, as a matter of urgency, spoke out and took a lead not just in issuing statements but in ensuring that we had a UN Security Council discussion on 30 August—at a time when the UN was looking at other matters. He is absolutely right to suggest that this situation must be looked at in the context of Malaysia and of other neighbouring states in the region, and not just in the context of Bangladesh. Our ambassador has lobbied the Burmese Government, and our high commission in Dhaka has also discussed the situation with the Government of Bangladesh. We will continue to keep a close eye on developments. I hope that we can do that partly through the UN and other international bodies. My right hon. Friend’s suggestion that the UK brings things together is something that, uniquely, we have some authority to do. I hope that we shall do so if there is any escalation of the situation in the weeks ahead.
Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
The recent violence in Rakhine state and the long-standing persecution of the Rohingya are appalling and must end immediately. In the past two weeks alone, some 120,000 refugees have fled the violence in Rakhine state, and the two main UN camps in Bangladesh are now overflowing. We ask the Government and the military of Myanmar to remove all restrictions on entry to Rakhine state for the media, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations, as the world must be allowed to see what is happening and to help people in need.
While attacks by Rohingya militants are not to be condoned, the Government and military of Myanmar have a responsibility to protect civilians in all communities from violence and displacement, and they must begin to do so immediately. Will the Minister therefore make a commitment to work immediately with the UN and the Bangladeshi Government to provide urgent aid, food and water to refugees both inside and outside the camps?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. He will appreciate that I have already touched on some of the issues in relation to Bangladesh.
I, too, am concerned on behalf of the UK Government that Burma has dissociated itself from elements of the fact-finding mission to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Following the last set of attacks in October 2016, the UK co-sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council setting up a fact-finding mission to look into the human rights situation in Burma. We will continue forcefully to urge Burma to co-operate with the mission and its mandate, and as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the more the world sees what is going on, particularly on the border of Bangladesh and Burma, the more urgent attention we can give to the Burmese authorities to ensure that this terrible humanitarian crisis comes to a close at the earliest opportunity.
Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
We must acknowledge the wrongdoings of the minority armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, but the disproportionate response has escalated violence and enflamed a long-running human rights problem. It has also left other states such as Bangladesh, as we have heard, to carry a significant burden. Does the Minister agree that we should recognise the pivotal role that Aung San Suu Kyi plays in bringing democracy to what remains a fragile country, but if we are ever to get back to talking about democratic structures, trade, healthcare and education in that country we need a long-standing solution that will work to bring the human rights crisis to an end, so that the Rohingya Muslims can live peacefully? Will the Minister outline what we are doing, so that we can cope without UK aid for the increasing numbers of people who are fleeing to Bangladesh?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does, both as an officer of the all-party group on Burma and for Bangladesh. He will be aware that the 2008 constitution in Burma grants the military 25% of seats in Parliament as well as control of defence, border affairs and home affairs Ministries. That situation has entrenched the role of the security forces since the coup in 1962 and makes it difficult for life to have any normality as we understand it. In that context, we have to recognise the amazingly courageous behaviour of leader Aung San Suu Kyi. I can understand the disappointment of the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), but we have to look at this in the context of Aung San Suu Kyi trying to play a role that has made life better for many Burmese citizens—not, I accept, for the Rohingya population down in the south-west.
Imagine the situation if there were another coup d’état and Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from the scene and we went back to fully fledged military rule. That would be a calamitous outcome for the Burmese people. We need to do all that we can to support the moves, slow as they are, towards some sort of democracy as we would understand it in Burma. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) rightly said, the role of Aung San Suu Kyi and her international standing is critical in ensuring that some sort of normality comes to pass in the years to come.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
I welcome the Minister’s remarks, because it is incongruous and incomprehensible that Aung San Suu Kyi, for so long a beacon for human rights, has not stepped in to intervene in the face of an horrendous military crackdown that has burned down 17 villages and left 250,000 people without access to food. What is his assessment of the power struggles between the Burmese Government and the military, and how can we best help those who wish to uphold human rights to gain the upper hand?
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. As she says, the one person many British folk with relatively little knowledge or experience of Burma remember is Aung San Suu Kyi, so they are dismayed. It is worth pointing out the sectarian complexities of Burmese society, along with the lack of democracy as we would understand it for over five decades, as that plays an important role in the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed.
After the most recent escalation in Rakhine state, a number of statements were released by the Burmese information office. I have to say that these were not released with the consent of, or directly by, Aung San Suu Kyi. The information office is run by a former military officer. We understand that the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has now removed her name from that office. That gives some indication of the level of tensions and the complexity of what is going on in Burma.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on the tone and manner of her question, associate myself with the direction of her interrogation of the Minister and gently say how disappointed I was with the Minister’s tone, which sounded pretty close to dumping the blame for this ethnic cleansing on the victim community? Will he say a little more about our expectations of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is leading a Government and military forces who are associated with behaviour that is utterly unacceptable by any standard at all?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend chooses to use the opportunity to grandstand in the way that he does—[Interruption.] The House has voted on that matter already, as we know. As far as this matter is concerned, we have made it very clear that we feel that Aung San Suu Kyi and her Government need to step up to the plate. We are not in any way forgiving or understanding of the terrible violence and its impact. It is worth pointing out that the entrenched security forces, including the army, police and border guard force, are responsible for the security operations that are currently under way in Rakhine state. We have made that absolutely clear. We will support Burma’s ongoing transition from military dictatorship to a civilian-led democracy. This is very much an ongoing process, led by the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op)
The appalling persecution of the Rohingya is longstanding and well documented. I concur with the remarks of the former Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt); I was very disappointed with the statement made in response to the urgent question.
I have two questions for the Minister. On aid, reports today suggest that 30,000 Rohingyas are stranded in the mountains between Bangladesh and Burma. What is being done to address that in practical terms? There has to be a political solution in the long term. Does the Minister agree with the Nobel laureate, Malala, who yesterday appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi, saying that the citizenship of Myanmar has to be given to the Rohingya, so that they cease to be stateless people?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise just how complicated the situation with the Rohingya is. I suspect that the matter has been in his in-tray throughout his time as Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. In fairness, we are trying our best to get reliable information on the ground, which is difficult, as he will appreciate. We understand that 123,000 people have fled from Burma into Bangladesh. He may well be right that there are tens of thousands more in some halfway house, not able to make their way but desperate to do so.
I have tried to point out that we are not standing by innocently. We are doing all we can. In many ways, Britain has taken a lead at the UN, which will ultimately be the body that will have to deal, to a large extent, with elements of this humanitarian crisis. It is also worth pointing out that we have to be realistic about the manner in which the UN operates. The Security Council will require a unanimous vote or at least no veto. It is very difficult to see how, even within the P5, we would be able to get that for the reasons alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat).
These are difficult issues. We have done all we can and will continue to do so on the ground in Rangoon and—probably even more importantly in the months and years ahead—in Dhaka. We will do our bit and more to ensure that the humanitarian aspects of this crisis are kept to an absolute minimum.
Ms Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con)
Over 120,000 Rohingyas have been displaced and 17 villages have been torched, with thousands of deaths. Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to live up to her Nobel peace prize, call out what is fast becoming a genocide and assist Rohingyas fleeing persecution?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I have tried to explain the situation as it applies to statements that were put out in Aung San Suu Kyi’s name that did not reflect her views on these matters. As I have said, there is disappointment for many people; there was a sense that the moment Aung San Suu Kyi came into office—only a year ago—somehow everything would be transformed. The issues in Burma are, I am afraid, considerably more complex than that. It is vital that we do as much as we can to support Aung San Suu Kyi and the transition—slow as it may be—towards a fully fledged democracy. There remains a huge amount of good will for her work, which will be critical if we are to get any sort of resolution to these terrible events in the months ahead.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
In the Minister’s last conversation with the trade envoy to Burma, did he raise the humanitarian crisis?
I thank the hon. Lady. Yes, I did. Obviously, this is a fluid situation. The trade envoy will be heading out to Burma again before too long, as well as to other parts of the world. Let us be honest about it: as far as Burma is concerned, the issues around trade are entirely secondary to the humanitarian issues to which she referred. It is perfectly legitimate for those on the Opposition Front Bench to make the statements they did about past trade in weaponry and the like, but, equally, we are now in a very different, much more critical humanitarian situation. The hon. Lady can rest assured that, as far as our diplomats on both sides of the Bangladesh-Burma border are concerned, the focus will be exclusively on humanitarian rather than trade issues.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
I raise this as a genuine point to the Minister. Having looked at civilian transitions from military Governments in other parts of the world, will he say today whether, according to his moral conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi has done enough to challenge the mass murder of Rohingyas in Burma?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The truth of the matter is that we do not know precisely what is going on. That is one of the difficulties about Burmese society and the complexities around the Burmese political and military situation. Just what is happening out there is difficult to gauge. I have obviously spoken to our ambassador in Rangoon. He has reassured me that representations are being made on a regular basis. My understanding from what he has said is that the concerns my hon. Friend pointed out are being felt in the very highest ranks of the Burmese Government. So there is no suggestion, to my mind at least, that Aung San Suu Kyi has been guilty of anything other than keeping a very close eye on what is a desperate situation. However, the notion that she has full control over what happens in the military, particularly down in Rakhine, is, I am afraid, a long way from the reality of the situation in Burma and Burmese politics.
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab)
I participated in the induction programme for the new Parliament last year, and I appreciate the challenges facing Burma as it transitions towards democracy. I also appreciate the efforts made by the UK Government and Parliament—let us not overlook its role—in supporting that democratic development. Surely, though, it is vital that the UK Government and this Parliament continually restate their belief that citizenship for the Rohingya is an essential part of that transition.
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. Prior to taking on this role, I was vice-chairman for international affairs in the Conservative party and worked with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and although I did not specifically do work myself in Burma, I am well aware that a lot of work goes on in a cross-party, integrated programme. Yes, I accept that the citizenship issue is live. As the hon. Lady will be well aware, the sectarian divisions are very pronounced in that part of the world. As many will know, there was a suggestion that when Burma was formed in the aftermath of the second world war or when Bangladesh was formed in 1971, the Rohingya, as ethnic Bengalis, should have been in that part of the world. I fear that all those are very live issues in Burmese politics. They are very complicated issues for us to entirely make a judgment on, but that is not to say that there will not be an open debate on them from our diplomats on the ground.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
My right hon. Friend the Minister is right to say that it must be difficult to get reliable and accurate information on the ground, in which case his offer of a ministerial visit should come sooner rather than later. When he goes, will he make sure that he visits both sides of the border, with a particular emphasis on following the DFID aid stream to satisfy himself that our aid is getting to where it is needed?
Yes, I am obviously keen to see on the ground what is happening throughout Burma but also Bangladesh, which is a country I know well. I should perhaps point out that the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is the Minister with DFID responsibilities in this regard. He visited only a matter of a few weeks ago and saw what was happening before the latest outbreak of inter-communal ethnic violence. He has been confident that there has been a positive flow of DFID money for a whole range of different projects, both in Bangladesh and in Burma. A lot of the DFID money that is spent, and will continue to be spent, in that regard is on much broader infrastructure and other projects that are going to make life better for all Burmese. That is not for one minute to say that we should not be focusing attention now on some humanitarian aid, but there is a huge amount of aid that this country can rightly be proud of in that part of the world that is making life better, and will do so for all citizens, for the decades to come.
Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
Despite the extensive support— economic, cultural and political—that we have given to the Myanmar Government, we are now seeing that the Rohingya community is in danger of genocide. Does the Minister agree that we need to ask that Government for three things? First, the Government security forces need to be brought under control. Secondly, the aid organisations need to have free access there. Thirdly, the key thing is that the Rohingya need to be recognised as full citizens of Burma.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments will be passed on; they will be heard not just here but in Rangoon. We are making representations at diplomatic level. It is difficult, given the political situation there, to make demands, in the way that he perhaps suggests, about the role or otherwise of the military, or indeed any demands about Rohingya citizenship. However, he can rest assured that the concerns addressed to this House today will be made very clear.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab)
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, of the Burmese army’s six-year campaign against the Rohingya Muslims in Kachin and Rakhine provinces, during which 100,000 civilians have already been forced to flee their homes under very repressive laws and are unable to work freely. The UN has said that war crimes have been committed, yet nobody has been held accountable. This looks like the ethnic cleansing that is the precursor to genocide, with stateless citizens who cannot be counted and therefore their bodies cannot be counted either. We need our Foreign Secretary and the Minister to say unequivocally that we want full humanitarian access, that we want the violence to end and that we want to end the culture of impunity that allows these people to be murdered and nobody brought to justice.
I concur with the hon. Lady. As well as the condemnation to which she refers, we will do our best to get that message across through the international community. One hopes that not just British Ministers but Ministers from across the globe will make that clear, on a bilateral basis but also at the UN. Any judgment on whether crimes under international law have occurred is evidently a matter for judicial determination rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies. We will continue, however, to call for an end to the violence and to prevent escalation, irrespective of whether incidents fit the definition of specific international crimes to which she referred.
Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)
I note the significant humanitarian aid that the Minister has set out, but will the Government continue to urge foreign Governments to follow suit?
We work in partnership through the UN and through other international bodies. It is worth pointing out that we should be proud of our own expenditure, particularly in that part of the world. Bangladesh is a member of the Commonwealth and Burma was at one time part of India, so there are long-standing connections between our countries. Although one hopes that the international community will also take on some of the burden, we recognise through our DFID commitments that we have particular responsibilities and connections in that part of the world. Although I hope that we will do a lot on an international basis, I do not think we should be frightened by the fact that Britain may well, initially, very much take the lead in humanitarian aid.
Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
We need to appreciate that the sustained discrimination against, and killing of, Rohingya Muslims has been ongoing for years. To their credit, Bangladesh and other nations have attempted to accommodate and assist Rohingya refugees. Surely, the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, of all people, should respect the rights of all, especially minorities. Extraordinary respect and honour were accorded to her by our Parliament for her own long struggle for democracy. Has the Minister reminded her of this, and of the urgent need to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in her country? Will the Minister also confirm whether the Myanmar Government will be taking any positive steps openly to encourage the Rohingya back to their own country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his heartfelt comments. He will appreciate that the diplomatic process means that a lot of attention is being paid in Burma to the nature of the debate; that is probably unique among other Parliaments in which there is a passion for issues concerning Burma. To be fair, it is too early to talk in terms of commitments about Rohingya being brought back to Burma at any point. One issue will be whether many of them wish to return to Burma, even once the situation begins to stabilise. He will forgive me if I say that this is something to which we will return at a future stage.
I am keen to accommodate colleagues, but there is a premium on single questions. I look for a rapier inquiry to that intellectual colossus from Newham, Mr Stephen Timms.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister urge the Government of Myanmar to review—or, preferably, repeal—the 1982 citizenship law so that Rohingya Muslims can be granted citizenship of the country where they have always lived?
This is a live debate, and we will continue to make representations such as that which the right hon. Gentleman has made. He is well aware of the difficulties that face us in our relationship with Burma, which will regard this as largely an internal matter. It is not for us to dictate that on an international agenda, but his voice has been heard loud and clear, and this is not the only time that such an issue has been raised. We will do our level best to make sure that, apart from anything else, Bangladeshi citizens who live on the border are properly represented.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
Some 90,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled to Bangladesh. What help can the Minister give to the displaced who now live in the open and in forests, without tents or food? Bangladesh cannot afford to keep them and wishes them to leave.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that DFID is already the biggest single donor of bilateral aid to Bangladesh. We will continue to do as much work as we can, without in any way prejudicing important existing projects, particularly infrastructure projects, which have been under way for some time. He can rest assured that we have significant equities and significant expertise on the ground, particularly around the Cox’s Bazar area, which is the district adjacent to the Burmese border. I very much hope that those will come into play, and I suspect that that work is already going on as we speak.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
May I press the Minister further on his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)? The Minister says it is very difficult to find out what is going on in Burma, but is it so difficult or is it that we do not believe the reports? I have a report from the Burma Human Rights Network, which specifies that 30,000 Rohingya are trapped on the hillsides in Tha Win Chaung and Inn Din near Maungdaw township. These people are trapped without food, water and medicine. What is the Minister doing to find out what is going on? Frankly, if 30,000 people are trapped in such a situation, they cannot await a ministerial visit.
No one was suggesting that knowing about such a situation would be dependent on a ministerial visit. We are working on the ground, but we do need to verify the facts. I accept what the hon. Lady says and there is no sense of disbelief in what an NGO says—NGOs on the ground are working hard, including with DFID and other parts of the UK Government apparatus—but we need to verify the facts before making such statements. However, she should rest assured that a significant amount of work is going on, on both sides of the Burmese-Bangladeshi border, as we speak.
When the Minister has finally clarified the facts, will he condemn as genocide what everybody else believes to be genocide? What is the value of having a democratic dialogue if the result is the persecution and massacre of a whole group of people?
As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, our immediate priority has been to establish the facts, but it has also been to ensure that we provide urgent food and medical assistance to as many displaced citizens as we can. As I say, we are at the forefront of that.
On making any judgment about whether crimes have occurred under international law—this goes back to the issue discussed earlier—that is really a matter for judicial determination, not something that we should condemn here as politicians. Whether that is done through the UN—through a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, for example—lies some steps ahead. None the less, this must ultimately be a legal, rather than a political, intervention. As a P5 Member of the United Nations, we have obviously taken that particular aspect very seriously. As I pointed out in my initial comments, over a week ago we began the process of asking the UN to take seriously the issues that I fear have only deteriorated further in the past few days.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)
The Minister keeps repeating that the situation in Burma is very complex; I think we know that. What is really disturbing for those of us who went to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi and were so moved by her speech is that it seems that not only is she not doing anything, but she is not actually saying anything. In view of our relationship with the country and with her, does the Minister not think that someone should pick up the phone and speak to her? Has he done so? Has the Foreign Secretary spoken to her? Has anyone telephoned her and had a conversation in which they have repeated what some of us are saying in the Chamber today?
I believe that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi in recent weeks, when the situation was obviously already beginning to deteriorate. I know that he has regular conversations with her, and I am sure he will be on the phone to her again in that regard.
I am sorry if my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—the Thames lies between our constituencies—feels that I am repeating myself. It has to be said that there are only so many ways in which I can answer the same questions from Opposition Members. I do understand the heartfelt concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House. As I say, I think the message will go out loud and clear to Rangoon and, indeed, to other parts of Burma.
Faisal Rashid (Warrington South) (Lab)
I heard the Minister’s statement, and to be honest, I am quite disappointed. It is a really big issue, and he has mentioned a number of times that the Government are working on the ground. What exactly does he mean by “working on the ground”? What exactly has he been doing and what exactly has he done during the past few weeks? Will he please explain?
To be fair, the nature of diplomacy is to try to keep open lines of communication as far as possible. We obviously have connections at both ministerial level and also, and probably more importantly, through our embassy on the ground in Burma.
Above all, as I have said, there is the humanitarian aid that we are putting in place—a huge amount of work is going on—for the displaced communities that have been leaving. It is a massive humanitarian problem. At one level, it is clearly a problem for the international community, but vast amounts of DFID money—not least because of our expertise on the ground in that part of Bangladesh—are being put to good use to meet this humanitarian crisis.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman feels that not enough is being done. The reality, however, is that if 25,000 or 30,000 more people are pouring across the border daily, that is amazingly difficult to deal with. I do believe—I am confident and satisfied—that Britain is doing all we can in the current circumstances, and as the situation unfolds in the weeks ahead, I hope that we can redouble our work. It is unrealistic to think anything else.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab)
Over the past six years, the British public have witnessed the murderous persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine province. At the same time, they have turned on their television screens and heard some of the Burmese Buddhists using language that suggests that the Rohingya are almost subhuman. We have seen that persecution going on. Given that we have given some £80 million a year in DFID aid over this period, the British public will want to know why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no influence over the situation at all.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that we have no influence. The reality is that even in the past six years, when I accept some terrible things have gone on for the Rohingya population in Burma, there has been a move towards some sense of democracy. There was an election of some sort and Aung San Suu Kyi came into office, albeit with the constitutional constraints she is under and the difficulties brought by the civil war that is going on.
Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that we have done nothing. There has been a huge amount of energy, particularly from the UK Government. Sometimes that has happened quietly behind the scenes. We shall continue to do that on behalf of the many tens of thousands who find themselves displaced.
Mr Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
The Minister started his statement by talking about a Rohingya attack on the Burmese military. That flies in the face of what is an emerging genocide. When will the Government take a much stronger line with the Burmese Government, which in spite of the election of Aung San Suu Kyi are allowing the military to continue as it did before?
As I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier, the constitution unfortunately constrains that to a certain extent. The military have essentially been in control for most of the time since the successful coup of 1962. The moves towards democracy have, by British standards, been relatively small. The constraint we are under is that the hand of the military still plays a very important role from day to day.
I started my statement with that issue simply to say that the escalation we have seen in the past 10 days came about as the result of a terror attack and the reaction of the security services to it. That is the moment at which things reached the crisis point that we have seen over the past 10 days. However, I accept what has been said by many Members of the House: this is not something that has come out of the blue sky; the persecution of the Rohingya population has been a profound issue for decades.
Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab)
The Rohingya were the loyal allies of Britain in world war two and now they face their darkest hour. Will the Minister give us a clear answer? Will the Government make representations to the UN Security Council, calling for its immediate intervention to protect the Rohingya?
As I pointed out, we are in touch with the UN Security Council. We led the discussions that took place last week in this regard. Clearly, as the situation unfolds, we will be happy to make further representations.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
The Newcastle in solidarity with the people of Rohingya group meets on Monday. Does the Minister recognise that many people there—and there will be many people there—will take his word as evidence that he sees the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people as collateral damage in the establishment of democracy in Myanmar and, therefore, that the Rohingya people have no friend in this Government?
I really think that that is a very partisan view of the situation. I have tried to explain the constraints that the Government in Burma find themselves under. That is not to say that the Rohingya are collateral damage. We want to see democracy and, as has been pointed out by many Members, the persecution of the Rohingya minority is not something that has come out the blue in the last year or two; it has been going on for some considerable time. I refute the analysis that the hon. Lady has put into play. We are doing our level best to ensure that this issue is dealt with and she should feel proud, as a UK parliamentarian, that it is the UK Government and our permanent representative in the UK who are taking a lead in raising the profile of this issue in international quarters.
Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)
Over the weekend, I met members of the Rohingya community in my constituency. They told me horrific stories of some of the most grave crimes against humanity. They did not even know whether their friends and family were dead or alive. They told me horrific stories of women and children being burned and tortured. They also told me that during her time in custody, they had led some of the biggest campaigns in this country for the immediate release of Ms Suu Kyi. Now, in their hour of need, they hear a deafening silence. Why will the Minister not condemn this grave crime against humanity; why will he not condemn the persecution and ethnic cleansing; and why will he not condemn the deafening silence of Ms Suu Kyi?
I will not condemn an elected politician who, in my view, is doing her level best in the most incredibly difficult circumstances. I have pointed out that we condemn violence, and we have done our level best to ensure that tensions are defused as far as possible. That is the position that we will put across to all sides in Burma. We want to see the tension reduced, not raised to a higher level as the hon. Gentleman perhaps suggests, in his passionate plea, would be the right way forward. I do not think that it would be.
Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab)
The Minister may struggle with identifying the situation as genocide, but systematic rape, massacres and the burning of buildings of a minority community amount to ethnic cleansing to try to force it out of the country, if not out of existence. That is genocide. When can we expect an appropriate response to that effect from the Minister or the Government?
As I have said, that is a legal issue that has to go through the United Nations. It is not for the Government to make such a condemnation or to grandstand, either in the Chamber or elsewhere. The issue will need to be dealt with through the United Nations if it is to go to an International Criminal Court action, and at the moment we judge that it would be unlikely to get through the UN because at least one of the permanent five members of the Security Council would look to impose a veto. We will do our best to make the statements that we need to make in the international community, but this is ultimately a legal rather than a political matter. It would be easy for me to say words from the Dispatch Box to satisfy the hon. Lady now, but it makes much more sense to do things in a systematic manner.
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
The Department for International Development can and will do excellent work, but there are reports that authorities are restricting access to international aid. What will be done to ensure that the most vulnerable get the aid that they so desperately need? What political steps will be taken, and will the Government condemn those who will not allow access to aid in this humanitarian crisis?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Particularly on the Burmese side of the border, it is desperately difficult to get our DFID representatives the access that we would like them to have. By contrast, once people have crossed that border and are in refugee camps just inside the Bangladeshi border—I accept that that is by no means an ideal situation—we are able to do terrific work on the ground, and will continue to do so, to try to ensure that a looming humanitarian crisis is kept at bay.
Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
One issue inhibiting the UN’s work is the almost complete absence of in-country staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Will the Minister urgently raise that with his counterparts to ensure that the commissioner’s staff are granted regular visas?
We will raise that. The hon. Lady will know that Mark Lowcock has just taken up his role, and we will want to discuss that issue with him at the first opportunity.
Julie Cooper (Burnley) (Lab)
The message that seems to be coming over loud and clear today, as it has in the Foreign Secretary’s comments in recent days, is that the British Government are most concerned about defending the de facto leader and the worthy pursuit of democracy, at the expense of the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims. We have heard talk of getting the UN to take the situation seriously, but when are we going to escalate that? Given that children are being beheaded, villages burned and people raped in huge numbers, how serious does it have to get before we escalate our action?
I understand the upset that the hon. Lady feels. Anyone watching the desperate scenes unfold out in Burma and Bangladesh can only be moved by them. The truth is that if Aung San Suu Kyi were removed from office and Burma’s road towards democracy were closed off, it would be a calamity not just for the Rohingya but for every Burmese citizen, so we should not support that. We must work towards getting Burma on the road to democracy as much as possible rather than trading one off against the other.
I think the hon. Lady makes an unfair interpretation of the British Government’s position. We want to do our level best with what we have in place, but we recognise that things would be even worse if there were not some semblance of democracy in the Burmese Government.
Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
Over the past five years, the UK Government have allocated over half a million pounds towards the provision of educational training to the Burmese security forces, which, among other things, aims to promote awareness of international humanitarian law, ethics and leadership. What assessment has the Minister made of the efficacy of such training, and, if it has been found wanting, will the Government divert such military aid towards humanitarian efforts?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman heard my words earlier on this issue. We are providing the money for educational courses, not military training. Their content complies with the UK’s commitments under the EU arms embargo. The UK is, and will remain, a very strong supporter of continuing the EU arms embargo. We will continue to comply with it as it applies to Burma.
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