Hugh Robertson responds to debate on persecution of minorities in Burma

Speaking in the House of Commons

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing this debate on an important issue. Having said that, I start by apologising to him, because I do not have ministerial responsibility for Burma. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds that responsibility, and he is travelling. I am merely standing in for him. I have had a crash course in Burmese politics overnight.

One of the things that has struck me in listening to this debate—there have been extremely good contributions on all sides—is that there is a classic Foreign Office dilemma here. I think everyone would agree that the country is in transition. There is therefore a very difficult judgment on whether to stand off it and criticise it or get involved in it and try to influence and affect that change. Doing that, however, can open one up to many of the criticisms that are levelled at the UK Government—that we take too rose-tinted a view of the situation or that we are not tough enough. These are complicated diplomatic matters, and I absolutely understand many of the concerns that have been expressed. I will try to pick them up and answer them.

It is fair to say—I think everyone has acknowledged this—that the last three years in Burma have been a period of remarkable change. The country is undertaking an extraordinarily complex transition. It had an authoritarian military regime and is trying to move to a system of democratic government. The economy was centrally directed and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, is moving to be market-oriented—hence the Foreign Office guidelines. The country has come out of literally decades of conflict, and the good news is that there is peace in much of the country. As the hon. Member for Bradford East said, more than 1,000 political prisoners have been released and there is greater freedom of expression, but neither of those is in itself enough. The judgment is that the 2012 by-elections were credible, but there is clearly an awful lot more to do. The initial ceasefire agreements that have been signed between the Burmese Government and 10 of the 11 major armed groups appear to be holding.

I can sense that some will say that that is typical of the Foreign Office’s complacent approach, but it absolutely is not. Let me recognise at the outset that serious challenges remain. There are political prisoners who are still in jail and more activists have been detained in 2014 as repressive laws have failed to be amended in line with international standards. Small-scale conflict continues in many ethnic areas and there are worrying reports of incidences of sexual violence, which all Members have highlighted. The UN and other agencies struggle to gain unhindered humanitarian access to Rakhine state, where the humanitarian and political situation remains deeply concerning. I would not for a moment pretend that everything is rosy in this garden, and I would not want people to think that we have a rose-tinted view of the matter. We really do not; we absolutely recognise many of the issues that have been highlighted this morning.

There is a view, which I understand, having spent last night looking into this in some depth, that the parliamentary elections in 2015 are the watershed moment for Burma’s transition. It is absolutely incumbent on us here to try to create the conditions for credible elections to take place that involve all the minorities in Burma. I hope that will enable the Burmese people to take part in a democratic process where all their views count. We will be doing everything we can to build and reinforce Burma’s electoral network.

Before I talk about Rakhine, I will try to answer the various questions that the hon. Member for Bradford East and others asked. He first asked me about the Government’s action plan. It might help if I try to address his criticism that the UK’s approach to Burma has been too soft. We have consistently raised the importance of the reform process and human rights at the highest level. It was at the top of the agenda at the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Burmese President last year, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has consistently raised his concerns directly with the Burmese Government, including during his most recent visit to Burma in January. During that visit, he met separately with leaders of the Rohingya and Rakhine. The Foreign Secretary raised our concerns again in a call with his Burmese counterpart. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon did so again with the Burmese deputy Foreign Minister as recently as 12 June. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, the Burmese ambassador—this happens relatively unusually—was summoned to the Foreign Office so that we could express our concern about the conditions in Rakhine state. I hope that gives Members confidence. I cannot think of a country in the portfolio that I directly look after where there has been that level of pressure. It is unusual, and I hope it gives Members some comfort that we are taking the matter seriously.

The hon. Member for Bradford East asked about the Burmese Government’s action plan. We have constantly called on them to share that action plan with us, and I regret that they have not yet done so. It is therefore difficult to form an impression of exactly what is in it. He raised the question of war crimes, and the hon. Member for Bristol East generously paid tribute to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on that. Not in every area are the answers to many of these problems easy, but at least with crimes of sexual violencewe have had the largest global initiative. The hon. Member for Bristol East was good enough to say that she had met the Burmese delegation that came over. I cannot remember, but I think some 140 Governments were represented in that initiative in some way, shape or form and enormous numbers of people have signed the declaration that came out of it. We are all clear that signing the declaration is one thing, but action and delivery are the crucial test.

Jim Shannon: The Minister is right that it is all very well to make verbal commitments, which are a good start, but the message has to get to perpetrators at every level—lower ranks, sergeants, officers—so that it filters down. Anyone who commits a crime must know that they will be accountable under law, which is not currently happening.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman, who has extensive military experience, is absolutely right. He would have been interested to hear the absolutely spellbinding speech made by the Australian Chief of the Defence Force on exactly that issue and what needs to happen to ensure success. All those who were there for that speech heard that message loud and clear. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—I would not say anything else—that making it happen will be the real challenge. It is an extraordinary achievement to have signed the declaration, but that is the easy part and making it happen is different.

The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the census, which the British Government, along with other members of the international community, did indeed help to fund because we believed that it would be crucial to the development of Burma as a whole. Reports from international observers suggest that, with the exclusion of Rakhine and parts of Kachin, the process was largely carried out effectively. The Government are deeply disappointed, however, that the Burmese Government simply reneged on their long-standing assurance that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin. That remains a point of dispute and a disappointment, which leads to a judgment of whether it was right to support the census. Looking at Burma as a whole, it is a better country for the delivery of that census, but the decision to prevent the Rohingya from self-identifying is a straightforward contravention of international norms.

The hon. Member for Bradford East asked whether I felt “snubbed”. I am not aware that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who was there, did feel snubbed.

Political prisoners are a matter of great concern that was key during the Prime Minister’s discussions. We have urged both the Burmese Government and Parliament to repeal all existing laws that allow the Government to imprison political prisoners, and all laws that are not in line with democratic standards. We will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that democratic activists are able freely to voice their opinions without fear of arrest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East asked about military engagement, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The focus of our defence engagement is on democratic accountability, international law and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that the Burmese military, for better or worse, is a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of political reform, which again returns to the judgment of whether to stand back and criticise the reform if it does not succeed or to engage with it and try to affect the situation for the better. We have tried to do the latter and will continue to use our leverage over the Burmese military to get them to tackle issues, such as child soldiers, and to bring sexual violence to an end once and for all. I should just add that the EU arms embargo on Burma remains in place following the majority of sanctions being lifted in April 2013.

I was asked about an international investigation. It is absolutely our view that all allegations of human rights abuses must be dealt with immediately through a clear, independent, transparent investigation and, crucially, a prosecutorial process that meets international standards. We have made and will continue to make those concerns clear to the Burmese Government. It is absolutely the Government’s approach to seek an end to those violations and to prevent their further escalation irrespective of whether they fit the definition of specific international crimes.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. We should pay tribute to our Speaker, who has visited Burma on several occasions and has helped to draw attention to the problems. Nearly 30 years ago when I was a Minister, I went out to meet Sir Nicholas Fenn, the then ambassador, who made the claim, which the Minister kindly repeated today, that to be engaged with people is better than to be disengaged. We should pay tribute to the progress that has been made and make it clear that the Burmese people will benefit if Burma pays attention to international norms and applies them to allow its people, including the Rohingya, to prosper in their own country.

Hugh Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, with which I entirely agree. The longer I spend in the Foreign Office, the more I begin to realise that engagement with countries that do not accept our norms and standards is uncomfortable; there is no doubt about that, but I am absolutely convinced that engagement is the correct approach. If we fail to engage and simply stand off from a problem and criticise, we will lose both moral authority and the authority to try to influence. Sometimes, even when engagement does occur, influence does not come from making a lot of noise. Change is often effected by years of quiet diplomacy and initiatives such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and those undertaken by the Speaker and others, which play an important role.

Mr Ward: Most people would understand the dilemma to which the Minister refers. The frustration, particularly for the Rohingya, is that when they say that things are going badly for them in Rakhine, they are constantly told that things are going well elsewhere. They say, “Violations and murders are taking place,” but the response is, “Yes, but things are going well over here. Be patient.” It is difficult to be patient when crimes are being committed against a number of ethnic minority groups. The continual message is, “Put up with it, because we are making progress in so many other areas.”

Hugh Robertson: I entirely understand that frustration. The hope is that a policy of constructive engagement will help to move the whole piece along. I acknowledge that the situation may move much more slowly than we all would want, and that those who are affected will be annoyed and frustrated by the pace of change and will wonder why more is not happening internationally. I understand all the frustrations that my hon. Friend properly articulates, but I am not saying that progress is fast enough; it is far too slow and the situation has not moved at the desired pace.

I hope that those who arrive at my hon. Friend’s surgery will be given some comfort to know that the matter is being raised in a balanced and sensible way in today’s debate. I hope that he will be able to point to the Government’s actions and the assurances that I have been able to give him, and to the fact that we recognise that a huge amount of work still needs to be done. In a sense, this covers the last point in his excellent speech, which was about the sense of disempowerment and frustration at the pace of progress. I understand and acknowledge that the affected must feel that way, but I hope that I have provided some assurance that we are taking the matter seriously. If we consider the list of responses, including those from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, and the summoning of the Burmese ambassador, that is quite a catalogue of actions, and I do not think many other countries receive such a high level of diplomatic attention.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised, as he always does, the plight of Christians, with his customary attention to detail. He also mentioned Kachin province. During his recent visit, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, made a particular point of asking to see members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which is the largest religious organisation in Kachin state, and he discussed a large range of issues with them. He raised our concerns about the Christian community and other human rights issues with senior members of the Burmese Government. He made a particular point of calling for religious tolerance and dialogue during his speech at the British Council. Earlier this month, we also welcomed Archbishop Bo to London for the preventing sexual violence initiative summit.

As I have told the hon. Member for Strangford in our many conversations about my area of responsibility, the Foreign Office gets an enormous number of letters on the treatment of Christians around the world. We take the issue seriously, and it is definitely moving up the agenda. He knows from debates we have had—indeed, we had one yesterday—that I have particularly prioritised the issue. I am off to Lebanon on Sunday, and I will make a particular point of seeing members of the Christian community on Monday. This really is something that we take very seriously.

We have talked a bit about the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. As a specific result of the summit, funding of £300,000 is earmarked for projects in Burma offering greater support and protection to survivors of sexual violence.

In her speech, the hon. Member for Bristol East highlighted many of the issues that have been raised this morning. She said there is a danger that the narrative of progress will breed complacency. I hope my response has given her some assurance that that is absolutely not the case, and that we realise the problems we face.

The hon. Lady talked briefly about the intermarriage laws. The issue is very much on the radar, and she is right to highlight it. We are concerned about the possible implications of the proposed legislation, and we are following the ongoing discussions through the embassy in Rangoon. We have already raised our concerns with the Burmese Government, and we want to make sure all draft laws are in line with international standards. We want to make it absolutely clear that respect for the rights of women and for the freedom of religion and belief must be guaranteed. To give the hon. Lady further reassurance, let me add that the EU also raised concerns at the recent EU-Burma human rights dialogue.

I hope I have covered the various points that have been raised. Let me finish by returning to where I started half an hour or so ago and thanking the hon. Member for Bradford East for raising this issue; he and other Members are absolutely right to raise it. The Government know that much remains to be done and that progress is not guaranteed; there is an enormous way to go. However, it is worth reflecting—this goes back to a remark made earlier—on a comment made by the International Development Committee in March:

“Progress will not happen by standing back, adopting a cynical attitude to change.”

It really is important to have a constructive agenda if we are to try to force the changes we all want to see. The best way to help achieve our vision of a democratic Burma that enshrines freedom and human rights for all is to engage with the parties there. I understand that that will be a frustrating process, and that progress may well not seem quick enough for representatives of minority groups. However, engagement is the key to helping Burma embed reform and to encouraging further meaningful progress towards peaceful and democratic government.

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