THE DICTATORSHIP IN BURMA – 15 June 2005

Dr Julian Lewis: I ask hon. Members present to do a little mental transposition and imagine that, instead of talking about Burma today, we are cast back in time and are talking about apartheid South Africa. The question I want everybody to ask his or her conscience is this: if we were indeed talking about apartheid South Africa, would we be satisfied with the measures that are being proposed and taken today in respect of Burma? I think the answer to that is, "Not in the slightest".

I am old enough to remember the agitation, the campaigns, the harassment and the pressure which were rightly applied to the apartheid regime. It was essentially a policy of allowing no political hiding place for that regime, or anyone or any company that did business with it. When I was an undergraduate, for example, there was a perfect parallel with what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has been talking about in relation to Total and its support for the Burmese junta: Barclays Bank and its investments in South Africa. We were contemporaries, Miss Widdecombe, so you may remember some of the demonstrations in and around Oxford university against Barclays Bank. They were very effective.

My mind goes back even further to the perennial problem that civilised democracies have in dealing with dictatorships. Do they try to reason with them or do they confront and defeat them? That great man Winston Churchill was right about this, as about so many other things. Once, at a reception at the German embassy, he was asked by a press attaché why he was so confrontational towards the Nazi regime. He replied: "When a mad dog makes a dash for my trousers, I shoot him down before he can bite". In other words, there are some regimes that are so awful, so despicable and so brutal that they do not understand anything other than the pressure of force.

We have a dilemma in the world post the creation of the United Nations. Recently, in relation to Iraq, we have heard that the notion of overthrowing a Government simply for the purpose of regime change is considered illegal under international law. However, we have also heard that one of the very limited number of circumstances in which it is legitimate to try to overthrow regimes is when a humanitarian catastrophe is being perpetrated. It must be said that the record of the UN, the body originally conceived during the second world war as a world policeman, is not good in that respect. One has only to think of Rwanda, of the long delays before there were interventions in the Balkans, and of the uprisings in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, to know the powerlessness of a world body, particularly when the brutality is being carried out by a regime that is either a superpower itself or enjoys the protection of a superpower. 
 
However, I am not an absolutist about such things and I take the view that just because one cannot intervene effectively against every abuse of human rights, that is no excuse for not intervening effectively against those abuses of human rights where effective intervention is possible. Burma, like Zimbabwe, seems a case in point. I am not here today to argue the case for military action, but to pose a dilemma. We hear it said that the leader of Burma's democrats takes the view that force is not the answer and that peaceful civil resistance will eventually triumph. I hope that she is right, but it certainly will not triumph without effective international and commercial pressure, which is so far nowhere near being applied.

We must recognise, however, that those regimes where real force was not applied lasted a very long time indeed. In his famous essay "On Liberty", John Stuart Mill observed that there is no guarantee that liberty will always triumph. He said that history is replete with examples of liberty being thrown down and suppressed time after time and that it is only because there is a natural urge towards liberty that it will tend to revive itself and try again and again until it may be successful. The intellectually bankrupt Marxist regimes of the Soviet bloc lasted in excess of 40 years before imploding, despite repeated attempts to destabilise them from within by democratic means. The ghastly Soviet Union survived for more than 70 years before its internal contradictions brought it to an end. If the policy in Burma is to be passive resistance, the regime may continue for a considerable time, as the hon. Member for Southport (Dr John Pugh) observed when referring to its longevity.

I am drawing my comments to a close because many hon. Members want to speak. Part of the Minister's winding-up speech will have been written for him. I do not blame him for that and have no advance knowledge of it, but I suspect that I know what the structure will be. Part of it will be descriptive and say what a terrible state of affairs there is in Burma, just as Ministers always say what a terrible state of affairs there is in Zimbabwe. Hon. Members should try to distinguish between that part of the Minister's speech, which I predict will occupy at least three quarters of his time, and the recommendations and proposals for action that will be included at the end of his comments. I am not optimistic that it will be a long list.

[Dr Pugh: The hon. Gentleman talks about a lack of optimism. Clearly, an economic stranglehold around the country would be helpful in the case of Burma. However, one of the problems that has been alluded to is the fact that a key economic partner in this respect is China. It is a superpower and currently engaged with Microsoft in eliminating words such as "democracy" and "freedom" from the internet. So, the task is not an easy one and is not solely dependent on Western Governments.]

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is spot-on in his observation. That should be a cause for realising where pressure points are. Just as there are possibilities in this country for exerting pressure on Total if the campaigners get their act together, so there are possibilities for exerting pressure on China, which is anxious to improve its relationship with the West. Even as we speak, China is trying to engage in major commercial deals with both Europe and America, but should not be allowed to compartmentalise such ambitions and separate them from its behaviour in supporting the appalling regime in Burma.

I shall give a couple of examples of the way in which the Government have responded to typically perceptive questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. He asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

"what recent assessment has been made of the political situation in Burma?"

The reply was:

"We continue to believe that it is essential for the State Peace and Development Council to enter into a genuine and constructive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy".

It would have been helpful if the Nazi regime had entered into a genuine and constructive dialogue with all those democracies that it was in the process of undermining and overthrowing, but that would not have been a practical suggestion.

When my hon. Friend also asked the Foreign Secretary if he would

"(a) make representations to ASEAN to strip Burma of its chairmanship, (b) make it his policy not to participate in meetings with ASEAN under Burma's chairmanship and (c) urge ASEAN to suspend Burma",

he was told:

"We are ... concerned about Burma's forthcoming chairmanship ... It is too early for the EU to take a decision on the approach it will take in July 2006.

We will continue to take advantage of our regular bilateral and multilateral contacts with all ASEAN nations to encourage substantive change in Burma".– [Official Report, 25 May 2005; Vol. 434, c. 132-34W.]

I finish where I began – with Churchill. Such recommendations are like Churchill trying to negotiate and appeal to the better nature of the mad dog as it approaches. One cannot negotiate and appeal to the better nature of mad dogs; one has to shoot them down before they can bite.