International Development Committee: Burma Visas

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific in response to an Urgent Question in another place today. The Statement is as follows:

“Like the honourable gentleman, I am deeply disappointed that the Government of Burma have not granted visas for members of the International Development Committee to visit Burma. This displeasure has been communicated to the Burmese authorities. I accept that the IDC does vital work, providing oversight of UK aid programming in Burma and beyond.

The International Development Committee was due to travel on 27 February, and in the case of the honourable gentleman and the rest of the committee, on 28 February. When no decision on visas was received, in the early morning of yesterday the IDC understandably cancelled the Burma leg of its visit. However, I understand that it will continue with the second element of its trip, namely to travel to Bangladesh to review DfID’s work there, including support for the Rohingya refugees displaced to Cox’s Bazar and the vicinity. My officials were informed this morning that the IDC’s visa applications had been formally denied. Burmese officials have indicated three reasons for that refusal: first, that there is an extended public holiday in Burma; secondly, that access to Rakhine state remains restricted for security reasons; and, finally—I think this was something brought up in the press release by the honourable gentleman yesterday—that they were unhappy that individual members of the IDC had signed a letter calling for the senior general of the Burmese army to be held to account for the Burmese military behaviour in Rakhine.

It is right that the House takes a close interest in this crisis, and I know all Members here today continue to do so. The Government fully support the work of the International Development Committee and have been active in supporting this visit. DfID Burma worked closely with the IDC to develop a comprehensive itinerary covering a range of projects in country. The British ambassador in country, Andrew Patrick, and other FCO officials pressed repeatedly for visas to be approved, both in Burma and through the Burmese Embassy in London. I myself spoke yesterday morning over the telephone to the Burmese ambassador to raise the issue of visas, demonstrating how seriously the FCO takes this matter, not least as a courtesy to the House. I understand that you, Mr Speaker, wrote to the Burmese ambassador, and that he intends to reply formally setting out the reasons for the refusal.

Through DfID, the UK is one of the largest single donors to the refugee crisis in both Bangladesh and Burma. Our aid is making a big difference. The first tranche of UK funding is providing emergency food to some 174,000 people, and safe water and hygiene for more than 138,000. Following a diphtheria outbreak in the refugee camps we deployed the UK’s emergency medical team of over 40 specialists to save lives.

The decision to deny visas is highly regrettable and will prevent the committee seeing some of DfID’s work at first hand. However, this Government must and will remain committed to supporting Burma’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Working with DfID, we will ensure the committee has access to all the information it needs to scrutinise the programme in Burma effectively”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to that Urgent Question. Clearly, the refusal of visas for the IDC is a shocking development. Stephen Twigg, chair of the IDC in the other place, said it was his belief that this was as a direct result of the intervention of Aung San Suu Kyi. During his interview yesterday on the BBC’s “Today” programme, the Foreign Secretary said that we need to understand the historic problem and how Aung San Suu Kyi feels the pressure. Surely our response now must be to exert more pressure, without, as he says, hurting those who need our help most.

Last October, in an Oral Question in this Chamber, I told the Minister that I welcomed the suspension of aid to the Burmese military but asked whether we should now consider the suspension of support to the DfID funding of parliamentary advice, as well as to the WFD funding of advice to the Myanmar Government. Surely now is the time to show our discontent and put pressure on those who have made this decision. The fact is that Myanmar is refusing access to the UN fact-finding mission and to the UN Refugee Agency, the only agency with the expertise and credibility to monitor the repatriation of the Rohingya people. What are the Government going to do? How do we ensure access, not only for the IDC but for the United Nations?

My Lords, the noble Lord is aware that I agree with many of the sentiments he has expressed. Let me reassure him and all noble Lords that the Government continue to implore the Burmese authorities, the civilian Government and the military authorities to provide full and unfettered access to all agencies. The noble Lord talked of the United Nations, and we continue to lobby on that. While there has been some progress—for example, the visit of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict—the access, particularly to Rakhine and northern Rakhine, has been very limited.

I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary remains focused on the issue of Burma. Indeed, he visited Burma recently and made it clear to the civilian authority and to Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, whom he met directly—he has spoken to her a number of times during the conflict since the summer of last year—that it was unacceptable. There is a reality check for the civilian Government. Close to 1 million Rohingya people have moved to Bangladesh since the early times of the conflict over a three-year period and it is time that they returned to Burma, but they can only do so under secure and safe protection, and that is one of the key areas of focus.

I can further assure the noble Lord because only yesterday I was at the Human Rights Council, where I met the Burmese Foreign Minister. I made it clear to him directly that we do not accept the prevailing situation. We will continue to press and to raise this issue both bilaterally and through international fora.

On the issue of DfID aid specifically, I note what the noble Lord has said. However, I am sure he will accept that some of the aid programmes focused on Burma at the moment are delivering real assistance to some of the people who need basic services such as nutrition and water supplies. I know the noble Lord agrees. He raised important issues about capacity building within the context of the Government. It is important that we retain communication lines with the Burmese authorities—the civilian authority in particular.

I can assure all noble Lords that we continue to press the Burmese authorities to ensure access for all humanitarian agencies so that people can continue to receive the aid they need.

My Lords, the inescapable fact is that the Government of Myanmar have demonstrated yet again that they wish to have unfettered freedom to persecute the Rohingya. They continue to use denial of access to quell criticism, so the International Development Committee can wear with honour the refusal of the Myanmar Government to grant it visas.

Does the Minister agree that the repatriation plan agreed by the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar is premature as the conditions are not there for a safe and dignified return? China continues to block resolutions in the Security Council and waters down statements critical of Myanmar’s action. Does the Minister agree that it is time to co-ordinate international action and call for the suspension of the UN veto in cases of hideous mass atrocities such as this?

I totally agree with the noble Baroness on the first point: you cannot have a bilateral agreement which does not guarantee the safe and secure return of the Rohingya community and enshrine their rights within the Burmese constitution.

On her point about China, China needs to look long and hard at the humanitarian crisis prevailing in Burma. Anyone who visits Cox’s Bazar will see that humanitarian tragedy unfolding. We continue to work both bilaterally with China and through the UN Security Council to gather its support so that we see action, particularly from the military authorities in Burma.

My Lords, following on from the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, clearly we need to do something. The Minister has said that the Government have protested and are going to raise this matter in international fora but, as we all know, protests do not have much leverage on events. Some concrete incentives and deterrents—or punishments, if you like—are required.

I agree with the Government’s intention not to reduce their aid programme in Burma—we should not make the poor and starving people of Burma suffer for this—but an appropriate response might be a travel ban on Myanmar government and military officials.

 

I agree with the noble Lord that we need specifics. I can assure him that those are the blunt messages we are delivering. The most recent thing we are pushing, and we hope will be achieved, is the renewal of the EU arms embargo in March 2018. When my right honourable friend Mark Field attended the EU Council he secured a strong conclusion on Burma, including targeted measures on specific military figures within the Burmese military Government.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the Foreign Secretary talking to Aung San Suu Kyi. Was there any response? Some of us in this country who saluted the way she championed human rights are confused by her—to put it kindly—seeming helplessness in this crisis.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

I agree with the noble Lord. I express the sentiments that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary expressed: there is need for a real recognition. While he raised that matter in no uncertain, blunt terms, there is undoubtedly still a real denial from the civilian authorities. And yes, regrettably, for a lady who championed human rights, we now see the worst kind of abuse of human rights in the very country she now administers.

My Lords, it is shocking that the crisis of the Rohingya has been going on for 25 years or longer. I visited Cox’s Bazar before I became a Member of this House in the early 1990s. Are we the only country against which the Burmese Government have taken the kind of action they have in relation to our Select Committee, or have other countries also been discriminated against by the Burmese authorities?

I cannot speak on the specific point of other countries but the United Nations was repeatedly refused entry to Burma. We have worked directly with the UN and it was partly our efforts that ensured the access that the UN agencies and representatives have received. However, I regret deeply that that access is very limited.

 

This is not the first time that MPs have been denied visas to other countries. On the other hand, doing so to a committee of the stature of the International Development Committee raises a serious issue. I am grateful to the Foreign Office for taking it so seriously and providing a full Statement. I watched Stephen Twigg put the Question this morning. He was full of indignation. One point I thought he was raising was whether we would be reviewing our aid programme with the Burmese Government. Would we truly contemplate that? I hope we would not.

 Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on the issue of aid, it is important that the Burmese authorities recognise the role Britain is playing. Equally, the aid we are providing and the majority of the DfID programmes are aimed at the very people who are suffering in the wider context within Burma. As I have said, there are important issues such as education, nutrition and sanitation, and I believe strongly from the humanitarian perspective that stopping such programmes would have a negative impact. They play a role and, importantly, they are helping the civilians in Burma. We will continue to work with the authorities and directly implore them but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, we will also look at targeted sanctions against particular figures in the Burmese military.

 

View the original statement HERE.

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