Backbench Business: The Rohingya and the Myanmar Government

Mark made the following speech in yesterday’s backbench debate on the Rohingya and the Myanmar Government.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for initiating this debate. I think all of us admire her heartfelt dedication and commitment to the Rohingya, and I appreciate the strength of feeling shown in the House during the debate. Given the constraints of time, I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I deal in writing over the next few days with some of the specific issues that have been raised.

I very much welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s actions to address the appalling situation facing the Rohingya in Rakhine state. This has of course been a fast-evolving crisis over recent weeks. I pay tribute particularly to the hon. Lady, but also to my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Sutton ​and Cheam (Paul Scully), who have been there recently, for what they said about what they saw, at least from the Bangladeshi side of the border.

As many hon. Members will know, the recent and continuing violence in Rakhine is, tragically, only the latest manifestation of very long-standing hostilities. The Rohingya have suffered terrible persecution over several decades. Their already very limited rights, if we can call them that, have been eroded by successive military Governments, and as people without citizenship—stateless folk—they have become increasingly marginalised in Burma and, indeed, at times in Bangladesh as well.

The Rohingya have previously been victims of outbreaks of sustained violence and displacement, including in 2012 and as recently as October 2016, but the movement of people since 25 August and the violence by the security forces have been on an unprecedented scale. Deadly attacks on Rohingya communities by vigilante groups have also been reprehensible, and it is deeply concerning that these incidents have reportedly been carried out in collusion with the Burmese security forces.

As I have said, the consequences of this violence are appalling. I saw that for myself when I travelled there at the end of last month, as the first western Minister to visit Burma since the crisis began. What I heard in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, was truly heartbreaking. When I visited camps in Burma, the descriptions of murder, rape and other human rights violations and abuses that I heard about—they had taken place only a matter of weeks earlier—were horrifying. Over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled their homes and crossed into Bangladesh. Others, including members of other ethnic communities, have been internally displaced within Rakhine in recent times. This is a human tragedy and a humanitarian catastrophe.

I want to say something slightly personal in relation to the issue of ethnic cleansing. Many Members recognise that we are reluctant to use that phrase. There is a personal reason for that and a broader reason. We have been trying diplomatically as far as possible to secure movement from the Burmese Government. In fact, there has been quite significant movement by Aung San Suu Kyi, which I shall come on to. There is also a more personal reason, which goes back to the rather provocative statement from the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon). My mother was ethnically cleansed as a German national in the early months of 1945. She moved from the part of Germany in which my forefathers had lived since the 1720s, and to which she was able briefly to return as a visitor in her 50s. I have never seen that part of the world.

It is because the phrase “ethnic cleansing” is loaded with great emotion and a sense of finality that I have been relatively reluctant to use it. That is not in any way to disrespect the Rohingya, but we still maintain hope that many of them will be allowed to return safely to Burma—it may be a forlorn hope. However, I accept that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the situation seems like a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. I conclude, I am afraid, that that appears to be an increasingly accurate description of what has happened.

What is essential now is that the Burmese Government and the security forces enact the positive measures announced by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday evening. That includes the establishment of a new civilian-led body to oversee the return of those who ​have fled and the development of Rakhine into a state, perhaps with martial aid, in which all communities can live together sustainably. The security forces should ensure that the Rohingya feel safe to return. They must, in my view, permit a massive upscaling in international humanitarian relief in Burma that is desperately needed to reach those who remained in Rakhine or, we hope, will return there.

Within the international community—I am glad to say that most Members, although I accept not all, recognise this—the UK is playing a leading role, and it is right that we should do so for historical reasons, in seeking a solution to this political, diplomatic and humanitarian crisis. We continue to engage extensively with the Burmese Government to seek an end to the violence, and to secure full humanitarian access to Rakhine and the return of those Rohingya who have fled. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi twice in recent weeks, and I held face-to-face negotiations and discussions with her in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Burma, on 27 September. During my visit I pressed civilian and military officials to stop the violence, to allow humanitarian access without delay, and to commit to the safe return of the Rohingya.

Ministerial colleagues across Government have been putting pressure on the Burmese Government and military. We have suspended military visits from Burma as well as our defence education co-operation. We are calling on the EU to do likewise. In response to the terrible humanitarian situation across the border in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, DFID is providing extensive assistance, and I want to thank my colleagues in that Department for playing an important role in mobilising international support. Bangladesh, as we know, faces an almost insurmountable challenge in providing genuine assistance to those refugees. Within days of the latest outbreak of hostilities, the UK Government, as has been pointed out, pledged an additional £30 million in support. Those funds are providing essential shelter, food and water to those in desperate need. We want to do more—far more—and the message from the House today will be heard loud and clear in that Department.

I visited Bangladesh after Burma last month, together with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). We met Bangladeshi Ministers and senior officials, the UN and other development officials, and expressed our appreciation for the support that they were providing. In turn, they appreciated the UK’s leadership in providing humanitarian aid on the ground. We have also been working tirelessly to focus international attention and pressure on the Burmese security forces. We have raised the subject of Burma three times at the UN Security Council, and convened an international meeting in New York with Kofi Annan only last Friday. The Foreign Secretary also convened a meeting of Foreign Ministers at the UN General Assembly in New York on 18 September, and I was the only European Minister to address a meeting on Burma organised by the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation the following day, at which the UK Government were specifically singled out by the OIC’s secretary general, a Saudi Arabian gentleman, for our diplomatic, political and humanitarian leadership in response to the crisis.​
Through that engagement, we have galvanised the international community around a five-point plan: the security forces must stop the violence—no major violence has been reported since 5 September; full humanitarian access within Burma must be secured; refugees must be allowed to return to Burma in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan, must be implemented rapidly and in full; and above all, Burma must grant access to, and fully co-operate with, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission.

Although the civilian Government have started to make progress on these points, the Burmese security forces have not yet heeded the call. We are discussing the next steps in the Security Council to increase the pressure. However, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) discussed, getting a UN Security Council resolution requires the co-operation of both China and Russia, which we reckon would be likely to veto any such resolution.

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has made our concerns clear at the UN Human Rights Council, where we have mobilised the UN’s human rights machinery to address the situation. We have helped secure a six-month extension of the UN fact-finding mission to Burma so that it can properly examine the serious reports of human rights violations coming out of Rakhine, as well as the other conflicts in Kachin and Shan states. The role of neighbouring countries in restoring peace and security will inevitably be vital. That is why we continue to talk, despite our differences, with China, and with India and other regional states, to encourage them to play their part in resolving the crisis.

As I mentioned earlier, I also held talks with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi when I was in Burma. I very much understand the criticism and grave disappointment felt by many in the House, who previously regarded her as a heroine. However, if we fail to acknowledge—in part, at least—the pressures she is facing, that does not help us move towards solutions. She is walking a very fine line between international condemnation and Burmese public opinion, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out, overwhelmingly supports what the security forces are doing, terrible as that may sound.

Weakening Aung San Suu Kyi strengthens the military’s hand. Given how the security forces have attacked and persecuted the Rohingya in recent weeks, that is a terrifying thought. We must all help make a better future for the Rohingya still in Burma and for those who return. We also want to represent all the other people in Burma—there are many from all communities—who yearn for the human rights and democratic freedoms that we all enjoy. During our talks, Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated her pledge for a transparent process to allow for the return of all Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. She pledged to me that she would start immediately to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

As I mentioned, in the past week Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly outlined a plan and vision for resolving the crisis, including the establishment of a civilian force to deliver humanitarian assistance, the resettlement of refugees, and long-term development. The UK Government are watching closely to ensure that her positive words translate into swift action. We will keep challenging her to ensure ​that our five-point plan is implemented. I think I can speak for everyone in the House when I say that we stand ready to ensure that she gets whatever international political and technical support that is required to put the plan into place.

It was all too clear from my heartbreaking meetings in Rakhine with Rohingya Muslims, ethnic Buddhists and Hindus—civilians who had been forcibly displaced from their homes and had witnessed almost unspeakable atrocities—that communities in Burma remain deeply polarised. A palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust remains.

The terrible events in Rakhine have been the saddest of reminders of these divides and of just how far Burma still has to go to become an effective civilian democracy. Resolving the current crisis and helping democracy truly take root will require sustained diplomatic and humanitarian engagement. Ultimately, however, only a democratic transition can embed any long-term progress and rights for the Rohingya. We will continue, through diplomacy, slowly but surely to press the civilian Government for rapid progress.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said in his wise speech, the UK is unpopular in Burma for its activism on Rakhine, but there is much that the UK Government have already done and much that we shall continue to do on the humanitarian front. I must add in conclusion, however, that we also have vital diplomatic and political work to carry out. We cannot allow the humanitarian issue to crowd that out. If we do, future military dictatorships will believe that they can act with the same impunity in similar circumstances.