Westminster Hall Debate: Myanmar - Rohingya Minority

Yesterday, Mark spoke in his role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Helen Jones MP regarding the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. To read the whole debate on Hansard, please click here.


Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 200224 and 200371, and public petitions P002061, P002064, P002078 and P002104, relating to Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Burma is a tragedy that shames all of us. Their current situation stands as a reproach to the international community, which has proved either unable or unwilling to act as the Burmese Government have violated every international norm of right behaviour. It has tarnished for ever the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once a beacon for those who believe in democracy and human rights. It has led to Bangladesh, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, having to take in a huge number of refugees. Bangladesh accepted more refugees in three weeks than the whole of mainland Europe took from the Mediterranean in a year. That perhaps puts some of our problems into perspective.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have fled their homes, but the roots of the tragedy were there for a long time for anyone who wished to see. For years, violence has been growing in Rakhine state. By 2013, Human Rights Watch was warning of what it called the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. In 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Early Warning Project listed the Rohingya as being at risk of genocide, yet it seems that various Governments of the world continue to give the wrong signal to the Burmese Government and military.

We relied too much on the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi. We indicated through our actions, if not our words, that the plight of the Rohingya and their human rights were not something we were terribly concerned about. To give one example, the UK Government funded the 2014 census in Burma to the tune of £10 million. The then Select Committee on International Development expressed its concerns that the Rohingya would not be allowed to take part.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate. I pay tribute to her industry and—at times, I am sure—patience as Chair of the Petitions Committee.

The debate was inspired by six public e-petitions that attracted some hundreds of thousands of signatures, and that demonstrate the British public’s heartfelt concern for the desperate plight of the Rohingya. Hon. Members will reflect that the overall lack of contributions—quantity rather than quality—does not reflect the strength of feeling of the House. Everyone will realise that the debate on Syria that is going on has unfortunately resulted in a clash. I very much hope that those hundreds of thousands of British citizens who signed these petitions will not believe in any disparaging way that there are not strong feelings.

Some motion and energy has taken place, and I am happy that I will spend much of my speech reporting the progress we have made. I will be honest: any progress that we make diplomatically and politically is not enough, which is a great frustration. I very much agree with the kind words from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) about my involvement. This takes up a considerable amount of my time, not just in the House but wherever I go abroad. I will come to that in a moment or two.

Only last month, I saw for myself the intensity of the domestic concern—I ought to make an apology while I am here, because that happened in constituency of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. I met representatives from a network of British Rohingya communities and the British Bangladeshi community at an exhibition of photographs from the refugee camps held in Spitalfields. Some of those present had family in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and were able to pass on day-to-day details. Others had been brought up here in the UK as refugees from previous waves of Rohingya flight over the decades. They were understandably very close to despair.

What was hopeful was the sense of a network of people together. The network is promoted in part by the Home Office to try to ensure that there is a constructive approach towards their work—not just their campaigning, but their work within that community. We do not want an approach that could in any way lead to the militancy that many have been very concerned about ever since this crisis reached a new point on 25 August last year. I reassured them on that night and I reassure Parliament again today that the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development will not ever forget their plight.

I shall set out what action we have taken so far in response to the crisis, on which many contributions have been made today, and what we plan to do. Understandably, many of the petitions have called first and foremost for an end to the violence. Needless to say, we would like that too. In so far as there has been a reduction in violence in recent weeks and months, I fear that it is only because there are fewer people in Burma to whom violence can be meted out. As I have said, we keep a very close eye on the sexual violence that taking place across the Bangladeshi border.

I share the sense of horror felt by many hon. Members at the accounts from survivors of what they have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military in Rakhine state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out, that unspeakable violence includes rape and savage assault. It is appalling, and all hon. Members call for it to end. I wish we could do more than just express words, but words sometimes matter. One pledge I will make to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is that I will do all I can to try to discover in my Department whether there is any way in which more resource can usefully be implemented by the sexual violence team. One of the most important aspects of our work is training other people on the ground—non-governmental organisations—because of my Department’s expertise. I understand that on paper it looks as though the resource for specialists in this field does not seem anything like enough to take account of the day-to-day problems that continue to occur in Cox’s Bazar, albeit that it has doubled in the last month or so. The hon. Lady’s words and those of the hon. Member for Warrington North have not fallen on deaf ears: I will do all I can in the Foreign Office to try to find out more about exactly what is happening and whether we can, as a matter of urgency, put some more resource in place.

It is obvious that while the violence continues, there can be no hope of reassuring the Rohingya that they would be able to return safely, voluntarily and with dignity. As I said in my statement to the House last month, the violence that broke out in August 2017 was only the latest episode in a long-running cycle of persecution suffered by the Rohingya in Rakhine. As the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) pointed out, in many ways it existed even pre-1982. The truth is that, from the moment the Burmese state came into being, the Rohingya were regarded at best as second-class citizens or non-citizens, as the case may be. The 1982 issue only brought into sharper focus the way in which that sense of statelessness was underpinned.

We have urged the civilian Government of Burma to take action to stop the situation deteriorating since they took office two years ago, and we will continue to do so. The UN estimates that since last August more than 680,000 people have fled from Rakhine into Bangladesh. Our Government have repeatedly condemned the violence, as have this Parliament and the British people. We shall and must continue to work tirelessly with our international partners to seek a lasting solution to this terrible situation.

Last September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs convened in New York a meeting of Foreign Ministers, calling on the Burmese authorities to end the violence. In November, the UK proposed and secured a UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma, which called on the Burmese authorities urgently to stop the violence, to create the necessary conditions for refugee returns and to hold to account those responsible for acts of violence.

I continue actively to address this crisis with counterparts across Asia. Last week, I was in Malaysia and Japan. A number of hon Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, pointed out that there is potentially a role for ASEAN. He knows, and hon. Members will understand, the tensions and conflicts within ASEAN. It rightly does not like to wash its laundry in public. On the one hand, Malaysia has been one of the strongest supporters, and Brunei has worked well and perhaps more quietly behind the scenes with some of the aid it passes into the area. On the other hand, there are countries such as Thailand, which is fundamentally a Buddhist state.

One of the broadest concerns I have about the region is the sense in which so much is becoming atomised. Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka are predominantly Buddhist nations, and concerns have been raised by some about Hindu nationalism in parts of India and elsewhere. There is a dangerous sense—dare I say it?—that that will lead to a backlash from predominantly Muslim nations in the area. It is a very dangerous state of affairs. I will say a little more about social media in the concluding part of my speech.

Tomorrow, the Foreign Secretary will co-chair a meeting on the Rohingya crisis with fellow Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. We will urgently explore how to support Bangladesh and how to ensure that Burma responds to international concerns. I have had to deputise for the Foreign Secretary—he is the relevant Minister but was in Brussels and had to rush back and go straight into the main Chamber—in a number of meetings at CHOGM, including a very fruitful meeting with my counterpart the Foreign Minister of Brunei. We talked at length and in constructive terms about the progress being made behind the scenes. Unfortunately, as a result, I did not have a chance to speak to David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, who had wanted to speak with me. He has a letter in the Evening Standard today, setting out what I suspect he wanted to talk to me about. He rightly says that there is an opportunity at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting

“to mobilise much needed support for the Rohingya crisis. Economic and cultural ties between Commonwealth countries should be the basis for increased international solidarity with Bangladesh”.

As we know, it is currently hosting almost 1 million Rohingya in various ways. David Miliband has a plan afoot. I hope to speak to him later in the week and will pass the comments made in this debate. There will be continued meetings. I make this pledge: I will do all I can at every meeting with any Foreign Ministers from that region and ASEAN to make the case that the international community needs to hold together.

To be frank, one difficulty is that too few of the Rohingya are entrepreneurial enough to have a similar situation to the one that applied to Syrian refugees in Jordan, where businesses that were already up and running and had existing supply chains were able to keep going. I do not despair. There is more we can do to develop economic connections.

The Foreign Secretary will discuss the crisis at Sunday’s G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, which I expect will send a strong and united message to the Burmese authorities. At the end of this month, the UK will be co-leading the visit of the UN Security Council to Burma and Bangladesh, which has been referred to. We are confident that the very act of visiting the camps in Bangladesh and seeing the situation in Rakhine will further strengthen council members’ resolve to find a solution to the crisis. I have not been able to get out to the frontline in Bangladesh, although a number of other Ministers have, but going to Rakhine was a salutary lesson. Some camps had been up and running for five or six years, and what struck me was the thought that the conditions there are as good as it gets for any Rohingya who return anytime soon. Things were barely acceptable. It was a guarded camp. The education and health situation was dire. It opened one’s eyes to the magnitude of the problem.

I hope that the visit from the leading lights in the UN Security Council will prompt the Burmese authorities to accelerate the implementation of the presidential statement’s call for urgent action. There are not too many European nations other than ourselves and France. I believe that the Dutch, at the moment, are a member of the Security Council, but there are a number of—

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

So are the Swedes.

Mark Field

Sorry; the hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Swedes have actually been some of the most active members. I barely seem to go anywhere without bumping into Margot Wallström, and she always laments the fact that she has only one other Minister in her Department rather than the array we have in the Foreign Office.

A number of the e-petitions refer to the violence as genocide. The UK Government have recognised that there has been ethnic cleansing and that what has occurred may amount to genocide, or at least crimes against humanity. I have to say to the House again that genocide has a legal definition that can be declared only by a court of law, not by politicians or Governments.

I will go into some detail. As Burma is not a party to the Rome statute, the ICC would be able to consider a case of genocide only if Burma were to refer itself to the ICC, or if the UN Security Council refers Burma to the ICC. I am not suggesting for a minute that we will not go down the path that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has suggested, but I am afraid that the reality is that our calculation is that a Security Council resolution application would certainly be vetoed by China and perhaps by Russia. The UK and its EU partners will continue to call upon Burma to refer itself to the ICC, but so far it has not.

I can report today, however, that there has been some movement on accountability, as was referred to earlier. I recognise the frustrations of a number of hon. Members

Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

I am trying to understand what the Minister is saying. Why does he think Burma will agree to this referral?

Mark Field

We do not expect Burma to agree. I am just trying to go through the process. Bangladesh has ratified the Rome statute and, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, that could be the trigger for the ICC prosecutor asking the court to rule on whether it would therefore have jurisdiction over the forced displacement of Rohingya into Bangladesh which, if proven, would constitute crimes against humanity. We await the International Criminal Court’s ruling with keen interest and are very supportive of that move. Ultimately, it is a legal matter until we know. The UK stands ready actively to support the ICC should it decide that it has that jurisdiction.

Last week, the Burmese military announced the conviction of seven of its soldiers, who were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. I do not regard that as a show trial. That is an important lesson, not necessarily just in this theatre but elsewhere. I will come on to the plight of the journalists in a moment. We know that the Burmese military have not had a particularly good record of prosecuting and convicting their own soldiers, so I believe that that is a sign, albeit small, that the international pressure for accountability is having some effect.

We have been clear with the Burmese authorities that they must do much more. The international community needs to see a full, independent and transparent investigation into all the human rights violations in Rakhine. The UK will play its part in trying to amass that evidence, but ultimately it will be more powerful if it has UN and international community support. In the meantime, we will continue to support those efforts to collect and collate evidence that may be useful in any future prosecution. I have continued to press at umpteen meetings across the region for the immediate release of the two Burmese Reuters journalists facing trial for investigation into the Inn Din massacre. We will also try to make the case to our counterparts elsewhere that they should raise pressure internationally and whenever they have any dealings with Burma.

Ultimately, we want the Rohingya to return to their homes in the voluntary, safe and dignified manner to which I have referred. The Foreign Secretary raised that issue strongly with the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, when he visited Burma in February. He subsequently wrote a personal note to set out what needed to happen for the international community to sit up and listen. He called on Burma to allow the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in this important process.

I can report further progress since then. The Burmese Government have proposed a memorandum of understanding to agree how the UNHCR will be involved. The UNHCR is preparing its response. If and when that is finalised, the UK will push for transparency of the full form of that agreement. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow was rightly concerned that we would like to see exactly what the memorandum of understanding contains. More importantly, we would like to see the swift implementation of any practical agreement once it has been finalised.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

Can the Minister explain how the UNHCR’s oversight of any form of so-called safe and voluntary repatriation will prevent the kind of treatment that he has witnessed in Rakhine state in the internally displaced persons’ camps? He and others have mentioned that the Burmese Government are trying to construct new camps. How can he believe that the people in those camps will be treated any differently from the people who have been internally displaced over recent years, who are living in appalling conditions?

Mark Field

I accept those deep concerns. Again, many people from the UN will watch this. This has been an episode, over recent years—from 2012, and indeed before that, when large numbers of Rohingya were being put into camps—that the world did not know very much about. I hope that the conditions will be made apparent and therefore the UNHCR will be in a position, if a memorandum of understanding is agreed, to insist at the outset on much higher standards for the individuals concerned. If we can keep a lot of this work under the auspices of the UN and other non-governmental organisations, as opposed to it simply being for the Burmese authorities—the Burmese military—to control any future returnees, we can push for much higher standards. However, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow makes a valid point. It is not enough for there to be a memorandum, and for the memorandum to be agreed. It is important that this is properly policed for many years to come.

We will be examining in detail how we can support the longer-term change in Burma that the Rohingya and other persecuted minorities so desperately need. The hon. Member for Dundee West rightly pointed out that although the Rohingya are, by a long way, the largest and most long-standing of the persecuted minorities, other groups have equally fallen foul of the Burmese military and their existence has been perilous.

I am overseeing a review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s conflict, stability and security fund for Burma. We are preparing to launch new pilot projects this year to help to catalyse the democratic transition and strengthen the laws and protections that the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma so urgently require. That work is in progress, as I am sure the House understands. We will, no doubt, speak more about it in future statements.

The issue of sanctions was raised in several of the e-petitions. To date, we have not advocated sanctions on particular sectors or entities in the Burmese economy and its financial system. It can be difficult to predict or control the effect of financial sanctions on other parts of the economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam made some wise points. There is a danger that the targeting of companies and sectors will lead to a greater isolation of the Burmese economy. Doing so would strengthen the relative power of the military and, potentially, of its one reliable world neighbour, China. I think that would be counterproductive, in the circumstances. Although I understand the concerns that have been expressed, the notion rests uneasy with me. I know that in his trade role, my hon. Friend has focused more attention on Thailand and Brunei than on Burma. I cannot imagine that many existing international companies in Burma see it as a market that they wish to exploit to any greater extent at the moment. We will continue to work in that regard.

Rushanara Ali

Has the Foreign Office done any work to find out how many British businesses operate in Myanmar and which ones have a direct relationship with the military and military interests? We need to know the answer to that question.

Mark Field

I understand that. I do not think that a huge amount of work has been on done on that yet. We have been looking at the targeting of military figures and at sanctions in that regard. I should perhaps report that EU sanctions are under way, and we hope that they will be adopted within the next couple of months. The UK has led that work. In so far as it is a relatively straightforward process, I undertake that we will try to glean some more detail along the lines of what the hon. Lady has said. That will be a valuable next step, and I suspect that we can make some practical difference, working with our EU partners. As a number of people have mentioned, it is probably going to be difficult. Although in an ideal world we would like a global sanctions regime, we will need to do that at an EU level first and then make the moral and ethical case.

At the heart of the question of sanctions is the fact that we want to avoid inadvertently making the lives of ordinary Burmese people ever more difficult. They have a terrible enough time as it is. That is not to suggest that we will rule out sanctions. Far from it—we have been, and will continue to be, proactive in advocating sanctions that restrict the finances and freedom of movement of senior military commanders who were directly involved in atrocities in Rakhine last August and September. We have secured agreement on that from all other EU member states, and we expect full implementation in the next month or two.

We should remember that this crisis is, above all, a human catastrophe. I commend the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh in providing refuge for so many people who are in desperate need, as several Members mentioned. The UK is, and will remain, a leading donor to the humanitarian effort in Bangladesh. We have already discussed the £59 million that has been committed, including the £5 million of match funding for public donations—individuals making small donations at a personal level—to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

As virtually every Member in this Chamber has made clear, the monsoon and cyclone season is almost upon us. We are doing everything we can practically do to support Bangladesh’s efforts to improve its disaster preparedness and to protect the refugees. Last month, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for International Development wrote to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to reiterate the UK’s offer to help, and to call on her, as a matter of urgency, to prioritise the release of more land for refugees.

The UK alone is supplying reinforced shelter and sandbags for 158,000 people, safe water for a quarter of a million people and 5,000 toilets. Obviously, one hopes that other members of the international community are contributing as well. We continue to have an active dialogue with the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that aid can get through during the rainy season. We have already made efforts to improve drainage, maintain access to roads and reinforce embankments and walkways. I recognise the deep concern that a severe monsoon season will potentially make this catastrophe far worse. We continue to work with a range of UN and other agencies to make site improvements to the refugee camps in preparation for the heavy rainfall that we all anticipate.

We also actively engage in vaccination campaigns against cholera, measles and diphtheria, and UK aid is training healthcare workers to vaccinate as many children as possible before the rainy season. As everyone knows, if there is going to be an inoculation programme, it needs to be a full one. It is pointless to do it for 20% or 30%, because the problem becomes fairly acute.

I want to touch on two points made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is considering the UK’s response on humanitarian funding. We will remain the leading single donor to the relief effort. There has not been a clamour for another pledging conference—I wish I could give the hon. Lady more reason why—like the one in Geneva in November that I attended on behalf of the Government. That large pledging conference got us through, more or less, to this time. From my conversations with my right hon. Friend, I know that she recognises that the UK stands ready to donate a considerably larger sum in the coming year than we already have done.

On Bhasan Char, we have made it clear to Bangladesh that any alternative accommodation of refugees has to be safe. We share many of the concerns that have been raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam rightly pointed out, it was a sand bank. It also has all the makings of an Alcatraz-type situation—an imprisonment camp on an island that is quite a way away from the mainland. The other issue is that it does not have the necessary capacity—we are talking about a capacity of only around 200,000—so it does not solve any of the major problems. We share a lot of those concerns, as do many in the international community. It is by no means just the UK; others are deeply concerned.

I appreciate that I am spending a long time speaking, and I know that Members want to go off and do other things. We could talk a lot about social media, which is worthy of a major debate. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow asked whether we would take the issue up with Facebook and others. I am sure that there is ongoing debate, and that it is not restricted to the way in which social media is abused to whip up passions. That by no means exclusively relates to Burma, Bangladesh and the Rohingya. On one level, like a lot of us here, I am very wary of having legislation. I am not saying that there are not aspects where one should legislate, but one would hope that the global internet service providers would have a sense of responsibility. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head; I have also been fairly sceptical, and I have written a number of things about the issue. I do not think the appearance of Facebook’s chief executive in front of the US Congress last week gave us a lot of succour, although I wonder whether attitudes are beginning to change to a degree.

The single most worrying thing is how atomised everything is. If one felt that individuals were engaging with social media across the board to get a balanced view, that would be one thing, but the actual situation is the worst of all worlds. Young people, in particular, are getting very active on social media, but they are reading only one set of websites to get one totally partisan view. However, I think we should tread very carefully when it comes to legislating to try to prevent that.

Rushanara Ali

To put things into context, the Rwandan genocide was, in part, instigated by propaganda that was spread through the use of radio. It is important to recognise that although social media can play an incredibly important and positive role across societies, the negatives need to be understood and addressed, because social media is much more powerful. Often people are breaking the law, whether in our country or other countries. It is about enforcing the law online, as well as looking at what needs to be done pre-emptively to prevent very powerful media from being misused to create unrest in societies and leading to the atomisation of which the Minister speaks. That is why it is important that he speaks to his counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about how we can ensure that social media is used properly and appropriately for benefit, rather than harm.

Mark Field

I understand that. In a way, the issue is worthy of a much broader debate. We will need collectively, as a Parliament, to debate the issues and look at whether we need legislation or global protocols. I am also very aware that it is easy for us to criticise fake news, but when our Russian counterparts or President Trump do so, people are derisive. One person’s fake news is another person’s valuable contribution to public debate. I am not trying to trivialise the issue; it is much more important than we can recognise in this debate. Even in a developing country such as Burma, the malicious use of social media has made a massive difference. Social media has accentuated not only the problem, but a lot of the terrible divisions that have been laid bare within Burmese society.

To conclude, the petitions that we are debating have demonstrated the depth and strength of the British people’s feelings about the plight of the Rohingya. I hope that the debate and my response provide some reassurance to the petitioners that their MPs, their Parliament and this Government feel equally strongly about these matters. We are doing all we can to keep refugees safe in the camps, but in the longer term—I do not dismiss the humanitarian aspect—the important thing is to keep up the pressure on the Burmese authorities to hold the perpetrators to account and to enable a safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to their home. I cannot deny that the progress we have made is much, much slower than any of us would like, but the British public and the Burmese authorities should be in no doubt about our determination to stay the course.

Helen Jones

In many ways, this debate has been difficult to listen to—the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people are so appalling—but we need to confront them. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has a wide knowledge, and his co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).

I hope the Minister has heard clearly what has been said. I am grateful for his personal interest and for his work so far, but hon. Members have been clear that they want stronger action against the Burmese military and Government. We want a referral to the International Criminal Court and we need an arms embargo on Burma.

Those things will be difficult to negotiate and to achieve, but the Minister has gone part way along that road. After listening to the debate, I hope he will take on board the almost unanimous view of hon. Members and go further. In doing so, he will have our support and, I am sure, the support of all those who signed the petitions to show how deeply they feel about what is happening to the Rohingya people.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petitions 200224 and 200371, and public petitions P002061, P002064, P002078 and P002104, relating to Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.