Burma: ethnic minorities (Oral Questions, Lords, 18 June)

Baroness Berridge
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Government of Burma concerning the persecution and trafficking of the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic minorities in Burma.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con):
My Lords, the United Kingdom raises the problems in Rakhine with the Government of Burma at every opportunity. The Minister of State for Asia Pacific called the Burmese ambassador to the FCO on 18 May to express concern, calling for an urgent humanitarian response and regional co-ordination. In parallel, our ambassador in Rangoon delivered the same message, with the EU and US, in a démarche to Burmese Ministers and again bilaterally on 4 June.

Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Approximately 90,000 Rohingya Muslims have been trafficked this year alone. Laws are now proposed to restrict religious conversion and to make it punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment should a Buddhist marry a non-Buddhist, and Rohingya Muslims have been stripped of their right to vote. The root cause of this is militant Buddhist nationalism, which seeks to link Myanmar’s identity to that of being a Buddhist. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made about the recent case of Htin Lin Oo, a Buddhist, who was sentenced to two years in prison earlier this month after being charged under the penal code with insulting Buddhism simply because he tried to argue that the conduct of extremist Buddhist nationalists, who were preaching hatred and inciting violence, was contrary to the teaching of Buddhism?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
My Lords, first, I recognise the work that my noble friend does so well for all of us as co-chair of the All-Party Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief. We are extremely concerned about the approach of the Burmese Government to those who wish to express their own religious identity. We are one of the most outspoken countries in the world about not only freedom of religion and belief but freedoms generally. The Burmese Government are left in no doubt. As to those who are prisoners of the regime, we make it clear that there should be proper treatment of prisoners and proper judicial process. It is wrong around the world if people are inhibited from practising their own belief.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab):
To be credible we have to be consistent, as the noble Baroness and her committee have always been. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom puts Burma in the worst category and states that its Government are wholly unwilling to investigate and prosecute those who are guilty of abuses against Muslims. The US puts Burma in its “country of particular concern” category. I am pleased that the Government and the EU are making representations with the US, but is it normal to make this joint démarche when, to be powerful and credible, we always ensure that we work with the EU and the US?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
Indeed, yes. We work with both the EU and the US on these matters. With UK support, the issue of Rakhine was discussed at a briefing of the UN Security Council on 28 May, where I raised the matter of Burma with Prince Zeid, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Geneva on Monday. I will continue to do so. Later this morning, I meet the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and I will discuss the matter with him personally.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, as one in five Rohingya has now fled since 2011, does the Minister agree that hate speech is a key issue here and that many admirable Buddhist monks and civil society actors are speaking out against this? Can we not do more to help them in what they are doing? Will she also say a word about Kachin state, which is covered by this Question on ethnic minorities, where some 100,000 people have been displaced and more than 200 villages have now been burned to the ground?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
My Lords, with regard to freedoms—or lack of freedoms—in Burma, we have made it clear that it is essential for Burma to address the dire situation not only of the Rohingya community, but of other persecuted communities, regardless of the region. We want to see improved humanitarian access, greater security and accountability and a sustainable solution on citizenship applying country-wide.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):
My Lords, can the noble Baroness say something about the critical engagement we have with the current Burmese Government? For example, I understand that we are training Burmese military. How much leverage does the closeness of our relationship with the Burmese Government give us to make constructive criticism of this sort?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
My Lords, the noble Lord is right in his assumption that this relationship gives us more leverage. It is not merely a matter of providing technical training to the military so that they know the proper way to behave within the confines of reacting to what they may consider to be public disorder. We are also providing technical support in advance of the November elections so that they may be carried out in a proper manner.

Baroness Warsi (Con):
My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army against a number of ethnic minorities during this conflict? I congratulate her on her new role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. What specific work do she and the Foreign Office intend to do in this area?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
I am grateful to my noble friend. It was an honour to be appointed last week by the Prime Minister as his special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. When I had meetings in Geneva, it became clear that colleagues—not only in the United Nations but in countries and NGOs around the world—are ready and willing to work with the UK on these matters. As to what happens next in practical terms, I assure my noble friend that I have already identified countries where specific action can be taken by me and those around the world with whom I am working. Burma is clearly at the top of the list, as are Syria and Iraq.

Baroness O’Loan (CB):
My Lords, the Minister is clearly aware that the new protection of race and religion laws in Burma will make life much harder for Burmese minorities to marry, start a family or change religion. Do the Government agree with Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo that these laws represent an unacceptable and regrettable erosion of religious freedom?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
I absolutely agree.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab):
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent disenfranchisement of the Rohingya by the withdrawal of their ID cards is a further, outrageous attack on an already severely persecuted group? Does she accept that the forthcoming elections in Burma cannot possibly be free and fair when hundreds of thousands of people are being denied the right to vote and while the military maintains its 27% stake in the Burmese Parliament?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that the withdrawal of what are known as the white cards from the Rohingya was an improper act. This is the politest phrase I can think of in the circumstances. It severely imperils the appropriateness of the election results. However, we must recognise that Burma is on the cusp of having the opportunity to elect a civilian Government for the first time. This does not prevent our remaining outspoken about the fact that the Rohingya should not have had their ability to vote withdrawn.