Burma: human rights and the election – urgent question

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the release of political activists and human rights ahead of the elections in Burma on 8 November.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge):
I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for raising this matter at this important moment for Burma. Burma goes to the polls this very Sunday, which is possibly the most important democratic opportunity for the country in over 50 years. Credible, inclusive and transparent elections would represent a huge step in consolidating Burma’s transition towards democracy, but we are under no illusions that the elections will be perfect. More widely, the human rights picture remains extremely troubling.

As the hon. Lady’s question suggests, political prisoners remain a great concern in Burma. We have welcomed the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners under the Burmese Government’s scheme, following President Thein Sein’s commitment in 2012 here in London to release all political prisoners. However, that commitment remains unfulfilled. We are concerned about the continued arrest, detention and sentencing of political activists in the lead-up to the elections on Sunday.

We are concerned about the estimated figure that a minimum of 96 political activists remained behind bars at the end of September 2015, according to the most recent statistics we have, and that 460 more people have been detained under repressive laws and are awaiting trial following their arrests throughout 2014 and 2015. As the hon. Lady will be aware, they can campaign politically while undergoing a trial procedure. The arrests of activists and candidates for engaging in peaceful protests and social media posts—people such as Patrick Kum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandy Tun—raise particular concerns over the freedom of expression in the lead-up to the elections.

More widely, we continue to have many serious concerns about the human rights situation in Burma, particularly the appalling situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Thousands of people remain housed in supposedly temporary camps following the violence in 2012, when they were forced from their homes. The situation in the camps is desperate and worsening. We will continue to hold the Burmese Government to account. Most recently, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), raised these concerns with the Minister of the President’s Office when he visited Burma in July.

There has been an incredible amount of engagement on this issue, including the hon. Lady’s recent debate. I am happy to be in the House to add more flesh to that debate, particularly given that the elections are happening on Sunday.

Valerie Vaz:
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and welcome him back. I appreciate that he is stepping in for the Minister of State, who told me that he would be in Luxembourg.

The Minister mentioned that there are political prisoners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group, believes that there are many political prisoners and that more than 450 other people are awaiting trial. It says that the Burmese Government’s actions have intensified ahead of the polls, with the authorities continuing to lock up activists in the months leading up to the election. It stated:

“It is a great opportunity for the government to release all remaining political prisoners ahead of the election so that these people can participate in the historic polls… If the government really wants to move forward to democracy, no political prisoner should be behind bars.”

Father Thomas Htang Shan Mong, the director of the bishops conference’s justice and peace commission, has said that locking up activists contravenes basic social justice principles. He stated:

“Scores of political prisoners remain behind bars”.

He went on to say that

“the country has yet to move forward to democracy”

and that

“civil society groups…need to push for amending the draconian laws that attempt to silence activists.”

The Minister helpfully mentioned the case of Patrick Kum Jaa Lee who was arrested because he shared a photograph of a man wearing a Kachin-style longyi and stepping on a portrait of Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. A woman was detained after she shared a satirical picture on social media, comparing Burmese army uniforms to a feminine longyi used by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Minister say whether, ahead of these apparent free and fair elections, all activists awaiting trial and political prisoners are still in prison? He mentioned 96 prisoners, but perhaps he could update the House with another figure.

Large parts of Christian-majority Kachin state effectively remain in a state of civil war. More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of clashes, and they remain in temporary camps in Kachin and Shan states. The conflict shows that the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to end armed clashes in Myanmar before the vote on 8 November. In fact, only eight of 15 groups who participated in the national peace process were involved in the 15 October agreement. A Yangon-based political analyst said the fact that only some of the country’s armed ethnic groups have signed the agreement shows that it is more of a “cosmetic political show” than a historic benchmark, and stated:

“The peace process must be inclusive of all ethnic armed groups and the Government has not allowed some ethnic groups to be involved in the cease-fire agreement.”

Will the Minister update the House on whether the ceasefire agreement included all the ethnic groups, and will he say whether it is still in place ahead of the supposed free and fair elections on 8 November?

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma said that the restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association—including arrests and excessive force against protesters—put genuine elections at risk. Yanghee Lee said that there were worrying trends of undermining the democratic space, and a clear need for continued legislative and constitutional reform to bring the country’s legal framework in line with international human rights laws and standards. Given this country’s incredible investment in Burma, that is a matter of public policy. On Tuesday, Ben Rogers and Mark Farmaner updated us with their concerns about what is happening during the election, ahead of your historic round-table discussion in Speaker’s House, Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister ensure that he supports the United Nation’s call for all actors to work together to support further reforms in Burma? Given that a third of the population are from an ethnic minority background, internally displaced people and disenfranchised Rohingya people must all be part of that peace process to build a new nation that will encompass everyone after 8 November. Finally, will the Minister report back on this issue to the House?

James Duddridge:
I thank the hon. Lady for those questions. It is totally unacceptable to imprison people in the run-up to the election, even if they are then freed, and particularly given that they cannot campaign under Burmese law. It is concerning that such things have happened, given that in 2012 the President asserted that political prisoners would be freed. Much progress had been made since that visit to London, but things have gone backwards recently. Getting precise numbers out of Burma is difficult. The figures that I gave in my opening remarks were the most recent, but they are on the low side and cover the people we know about. Anecdotally, we are receiving reports that more people are being arrested, and the trend is getting worse.

I believe that eight out of 15 or 16 groups have signed up to the ceasefire, and that the ceasefire is broadly still in place. If I have any more information, I will return to that issue. We will continue to work closely with the UN and the special rapporteur on Burma, both in country and in New York. On parliamentary engagement, over the past few months oral questions have been raised and the hon. Lady secured a debate in Westminster Hall. More than 60 questions have been tabled in this House and the other place, and we must maintain that communication and highlight the issue. Her Majesty’s Government will continue to report on this issue, in particular following the elections on Sunday.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con):
You very kindly hosted a round-table meeting on Burma earlier this week, Mr Speaker, to which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has already referred. In that meeting, I was shocked to hear of the wholesale disenfranchisement of the Rohingya people from the elections. Will the Minister update us on what representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government on this specific issue?

James Duddridge:
I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing advocacy on this issue. When the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, visited Burma, he went first to Rakhine to look at the situation of the Rohingya people. They are oppressed and, in relation to the election, are being denied a democratic voice. The UK Government are deeply concerned about this issue. We have raised it on a consistent basis with the current Burmese Government and will continue to do so with any future Government. The position of the Rohingya people is unacceptable in the modern democracy Burma aspires to be and which we want to see.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab):
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for her urgent question, which follows on closely from her excellent debate on progress in securing better human rights and better elections in Burma. There is an enormous amount of interest across the Chamber and in the other place on this important question.

The people of Burma have faced decades of brutal oppression. In a few days’ time, they will have their first openly contested election in 50 years. This progress should be widely welcomed. The release of thousands of people, as part of a presidential prisoner amnesty in July, was an important step, too. In the previous prisoner amnesty that took place in October 2014, when thousands were released a few weeks ahead of Burma’s hosting two major international summits, there were reports of an upsurge in arrests and harassment of peaceful activists. Amnesty International states:

“Myanmar’s authorities have a track record of announcing prisoner amnesties…at politically opportune times. The government must prove that this is more than an empty gesture to curry favour ahead of the November elections”.

Will the Minister set out what steps have been taken by the UK and the international community to ensure that this will be a lasting amnesty?

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has criticised the electoral process, saying it has been less than totally free and fair and that the electoral commission has failed to deal with certain irregularities. Does the Minister share her concerns and has he raised them with the Burmese Government?

The Minister will be aware—it was raised in the urgent question—that the Rohingya and some Christian minorities are experiencing harassment and persecution. The Muslim minority are not classified as citizens and will not have a vote. Does the Minister agree that it is wrong that their voice will not be heard in this election? What efforts are being made to encourage the Burmese authorities not to follow this election, whatever the outcome, with arrests and harassment of peaceful activists who have been campaigning?

On Sunday, it will be for the Burmese people to decide their election. The whole House will be watching, looking on with hope that the election will be fair and free and that there will be a peaceful outcome that works towards greater human rights.

James Duddridge:
The eyes of the world and this Chamber are certainly on the elections to try to ensure they are free and fair. The hon. Lady’s comments were very balanced, reflecting not only the fears that things might go wrong and the fact that we should flag up any issues with the election, but the optimism that this is arguably the biggest opportunity for free and fair elections in more than 50 years. It has been a brutal, brutal decade. I congratulate all Members, some of whom are in the Chamber today, and organisations such as Amnesty International, which she mentioned in her question, that have worked so tirelessly.

The Rohingya have no voice and cannot be heard. They do not have the vote that we take for granted. I suspect it troubles all hon. Members that so many of our constituents do not vote in elections, but they do have a voice indirectly. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, visited and spoke to the Rohingya, and we will continue to press, in the strongest possible terms, for their democratic participation. Sadly, it is too late for Sunday, but we can, I hope, build on a strong election this weekend and move towards future elections that include the minority Muslim Rohingya population, so that Burma can proudly say that its election results represent the whole population, not just the vocal majority.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):
It is a real pleasure to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box.

Burma has been of considerable interest to the whole House, including you, Mr Speaker, for many years. I think that hon. Members can be congratulated on what they have done. Will the Minister say how we actually influence what happens in Burma? How do the Government go about influencing change?

James Duddridge:
Diplomacy is incredibly complicated. One thing I have learned in my short time at the Foreign Office is that sometimes softer diplomacy—the sort that you have exercised in relation to Burma, Mr Speaker—is among the most effective. When change does happen, as with the promise to release political prisoners in 2012, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what was done and by whom. It is rather a menu of activity, including by campaign groups outside this place and individuals within this place.

From a ministerial viewpoint, it is important to raise the subject consistently and not to let short-term interests, be they regional or British, get in the way of our firmly raising an unacceptable situation. At the same time, however, other things carry on. The approach is about getting the right balance, focus and message, and it is having some success. It is encouraging to see the elections on Sunday, but we have concerns, and clearly we all need to do more.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP):
I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for raising this important question at such a timely moment.

SNP Members, too, believe that this weekend’s national elections in Burma must be free and fair, but we have concerns about human rights and all citizens having a vote. Human Rights Watch yesterday identified concerns about the electoral process being

“undermined by systematic and structural problems including the lack of an independent election commission, ruling party dominance of state media, the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military, discriminatory voter registration laws, and mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country.”

It also noted:

“Election observers planning to monitor polls are challenged by limits on resources and training. Civil society monitors have been active only one year and will cover less than one-third of all townships.”

Given these serious concerns, we urge the Government to press the Burmese Government to engage in progressive electoral reform and to take every opportunity to raise these important issues in their communications with them.

James Duddridge:
I very much support the hon. Lady’s comments about encouraging greater progressive electoral reform. It would be anathema to us in this House to think that 25% of the seats in this Chamber might be filled by military generals. This is not something recognised as part of a modern democracy. While we have issues with our media in the UK, it would be fair to say that Burma needs to do a lot more in that regard.

On the structure of the elections and the election commission, again more work could be done on future elections, but the EU did deploy an extensive election observer mission—more than 100 people went there, some on a short-term basis and some, crucially, on a long-term basis, to witness the preparations and understand exactly what was happening in the run-up to the elections. The deputy chief observer is a British national, which is something we should be proud of.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con):
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) took this opportune moment to raise this important question. I also welcome the Minister back to this House; it is fantastic to see him here.

We have talked about the influence that Britain can bring to bear. A Facebook message I posted on the Burma Campaign UK has been seen by 147,000 residents of that country. It encouraged the people of Burma to go out and use their votes, despite their concerns about whether the election would be free and fair. Does the Minister agree that whatever the human rights situation in Burma, the only way to effect change in that country is to go out and vote as the people see fit? That is how to effect change and how Burma can move to becoming a more democratic country.

James Duddridge:
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me back to the House; I do not think I had the courtesy to welcome him to the Commons, but it is a pleasure to do so now. After hearing about his social media experience in relation to Burma, when I leave the Chamber I am immediately going to tweet a copy of my speech. It is clear that social media are picked up differently: people are not poring over their copy of Hansard, which might have been sent to them several days later, as some hon. Members might recall from their youth; social media allow people to access information speedily. I look forward to my hon. Friend re-tweeting me.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
I wish the Minister well in getting 147,000 views for his speech! More seriously, he may want to respond now or perhaps in writing. In relation to the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review recommendations, will he advise us what progress, if any, has been made on ensuring the independence of the judiciary; prohibiting the use of torture; ensuring that clear information is provided about the arrest and charging of political detainees; and ensuring that they have access to legal representation?

James Duddridge:
I am more than happy to raise these issues with the UN special rapporteur—I understand it is not the only forum through which they can be raised—and will update the right hon. Gentleman on the success of that lobbying. As was pointed out earlier, this is a multi-pronged attack to try to improve the situation in Burma, and engagement with the UN is an important part of that.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):
My hon. Friend said a little earlier that Burma has regressed from 2012. I am wondering what travel advice the Foreign Office gives to people considering going to Burma from the United Kingdom for holidays and recreation.

James Duddridge:
I would advise anyone thinking of travelling to look at the Foreign Office website for travel advice, particularly if they are going to places such as Burma where a significant event is happening on Sunday. Travel advice can change very quickly around the world. I spoke to consular staff yesterday on a number of issues, and I know that our consular support is some of the best in the world. The advice provided on the website is bang up to date and easily accessible; if things change on an hour-by-hour basis, that is the right place to look.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con):
I, too, welcome my very good hon. Friend back to this place. I very much look forward to working with him on Zimbabwe, in which, as he knows, I have a very keen interest. As you may know, Mr Speaker, the Minister’s parents-in-law used to live in my constituency and one was a councillor in Plymouth.

On my way to work this morning, I heard on the radio that the military in Burma was suggesting that if Aung San Suu Kyi should end up winning this election, it would not allow her to become President. Will my hon. Friend comment on that? He may not have heard this news.

James Duddridge:
I thank my hon. Friend, whose lobbying on Zimbabwe knows no bounds. He has raised the issue with me five times in four days, Mr Speaker, and now he raises it on an urgent question on Burma—and gets away with it! That is great advocacy.

Aung San Suu Kyi stood as a Member of Parliament in 2012 and was elected. She is standing again in the election on Sunday, just as a Member of Parliament would do here before taking a position in government. The Government in Burma will need to be formed by February. There are constitutional bars that will make it difficult for her to take up the role of President—specifically, the constitution states that anyone with any offspring who maintain non-Burmese passports cannot be President. That provision was inserted specifically to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency if she were democratically elected.

Normally, the United Kingdom Government strongly support the constitutions of sovereign nation states, but in this case the constitution simply does not follow the democratic principles that we should be encouraging the people of Burma to move towards. I do not know whether a balance can be found between 8 November and February, but I noted Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement that she intended to govern if she was victorious and if the National League for Democracy had a workable majority. I think that, regardless of the constitution, people should take note of the democratic will of the people in Burma.