Urgent Questions on International Development Committee: Burma Visas
March 1, 2018
Yesterday Mark answered Urgent Questions on the Burmese Government’s failure to issue visas to members of the International Development Committee:
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op)
To ask the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make a statement to the House on the Burmese Government’s failure to issue visas to members of the International Development Committee.
The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Like him, I am deeply disappointed that the Government of Burma have not granted visas for members of the International Development Committee. That displeasure has been communicated to the Burmese authorities. The Committee does vital work, providing oversight of UK aid programming in Burma and beyond.
The hon. Gentleman, who is the Chair of the International Development Committee, was due to travel on 27 February, with the rest of the Committee due to travel on 28 February. When no decision on visas was received by early yesterday morning, the Committee understandably cancelled the Burma leg of its visit. I understand that the Committee will continue with the second element of its trip, namely to travel to Bangladesh to review the Department for International Development’s work there, including support for the Rohingya refugees displaced to Cox’s Bazar and the vicinity.
My officials were informed this morning that the IDC’s visa applications had been formally denied. Burmese officials have indicated three reasons for the refusal: first, that there is an extended public holiday in Burma; secondly, that access to Rakhine state remains restricted for security reasons; and finally—I think the Chair of the IDC mentioned this in a press release yesterday evening—that they were unhappy that individual members of the IDC had signed a letter calling for the senior general of the Burmese army to be held to account for Burmese military behaviour in Rakhine.
It is right that the House takes a close interest in this sort of crisis, and I know that all Members present will continue to do so. The Government fully support the work of the International Development Committee and have been active in supporting this visit. DFID Burma worked closely with the IDC to develop a comprehensive itinerary covering a range of projects in-country. The British ambassador to Burma, Andrew Patrick, and other FCO officials pressed repeatedly for visas to be approved, both in Burma and through the Burmese embassy in London. I myself spoke over the telephone to the Burmese ambassador yesterday morning to raise the status of the visas. That demonstrates just how seriously the FCO takes this matter, not least as a courtesy to the House. I understand that you, Mr Speaker, wrote to the Burmese ambassador, and that he intends to reply formally to set out the reasons for the refusal.
Through DFID, the UK is one of the largest single donors to the refugee crisis in both Bangladesh and Burma. Our aid is making a big difference. The first tranche of UK funding is providing emergency food to some 174,000 people and safe water and hygiene to more than 138,000. Following a diphtheria outbreak in the refugee camps, we deployed the UK’s emergency medical team of more than 40 specialists to save lives.
This decision to deny visas is highly regrettable and will prevent the Committee from seeing some of DFID’s work at first hand. However, this Government must and will remain committed to supporting Burma’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Working with DFID, we will ensure that the Committee has access to all the information it needs to scrutinise the programme in Burma effectively.
I am most grateful to the Minister. In democracies, parliamentarians do criticise governments. That is a lesson that the Burmese Government will have to learn.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question and for what you just said. I also thank the Minister for his response. On behalf of the entire Committee, I thank all those who have worked incredibly hard over the past few days to try to sort out this matter including you, Mr Speaker, who, as the Minister rightly pointed out, wrote personally to the Burmese ambassador in London; the Minister himself for his intervention, for which I am very grateful; the staff of DFID; and the team in Burma, particularly the British ambassador. Sadly, it was all to no avail. The Committee should, right now, be on its way to Burma where we were planning to look at some of the fantastic work that DFID funds in that country.
We were told last week that our visas had been approved here in the United Kingdom—they had been processed and were ready—but the Burmese embassy in London was awaiting final approval from its Government. Yesterday, our passports were returned to us without visas. Clearly, the failure of the Burmese Government to grant these visas simply prevents us from doing our job as a Select Committee, which is to oversee how overseas development assistance is spent in-country. I have no doubt that a major part of the reason this has happened is direct retaliation for the report we published last month on the Rohingya crisis. I believe that there is a direct connection between our report and these actions.
I thank the Minister for shedding some light today, in his response to this urgent question, on the reasons the Burmese have now given for denying our visas. I understand that it was Aung San Suu Kyi who blocked the approval of our visas. Some will argue—some have argued this overnight on social media—that, as a result of this, we should stop United Kingdom aid to Burma. I agree with the Minister that it would be a major mistake to stop supporting programmes that help the poorest—health and education programmes that make a difference for the very poorest people. We should not punish them. However, does the Minister agree that it is now the time for us as a Parliament and for the Government to review the programme for democratic change, which is working with the Burmese Parliament? If we as parliamentarians are not permitted to go to that country, meet its political leaders and look at how UK aid is being spent, we now need to review whether it is right that our taxpayers’ resources are being spent on parliamentary strengthening in Burma.
Finally, I believe that this incident is an attempt—the latest of many—by the Burmese authorities to silence opposition to their treatment of the Rohingya. Does the Minister agree that instead we must redouble our efforts on behalf of the Rohingya people to see that they get the justice that they deserve?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contribution—as ever—and for his kind words about the intervention of the Foreign Office. I accept his view; I think it is direct retaliation. I would not like to speculate on whether there had been a personal intervention by Aung San Suu Kyi, but we may learn more in the days to come, and obviously we will discuss matters then.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I say to him: please rest assured that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in particular is working very closely to try to reorganise programmes that we have in Burma to take account of many of his concerns. Above all, there is a sense that we want to keep the interests of the most vulnerable at the forefront of our minds.
As I mentioned earlier, we are one of the biggest single donors in this terrible crisis. We have also given money to both the Red Cross and the World Food Programme to provide assistance in the northern Rakhine—in other words, on the Burmese, rather than the Bangladeshi, side of the border. To be honest, given the very severe humanitarian impact that heavy rains and cyclones could well have on the population—we are heading into cyclone season within the next month or so—this is something that we will keep under very open review.
I may have also said this, but I was in Brussels on Monday deputising for the Foreign Secretary at the Foreign Affairs Council. At the Council, we agreed the conclusions initiating the work to introduce some targeted sanctions against elements of the Burmese military. This work is going on. Obviously, we are trying to do a lot at the UN. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate some of the difficulties we face in that regard, not least because of the potential veto of some of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, but we are also doing a lot at the EU level as well.
Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)
Having seen what has been going on in Rakhine, albeit a few years ago, I can say it is imperative that we continue to assist the Rohingya people in their hour of need. I urge the Minister formally to summon the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign Office to explain how seriously this House takes the fact that the Committee cannot go there to oversee what is the biggest bilateral aid programme in that country.
Those of us who have followed events in that country for some time now know that our policy was to support Aung San Suu Kyi where we could, and that we were always told that the problems were with the military. If it is now the case that she is no longer part of the solution, but is indeed in some way part of the problem, I think it is time to reassess our relationship with the Parliament in Naypyidaw, with the army in Burma, particularly with regard to the training and assistance that we have been trying to provide to make them a more democratically accountable military, and with the range of bilateral relations that we have had in that country. We simply cannot allow them to get away with this kind of behaviour.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. Obviously, he was a predecessor in the role that I now hold. This must all be very depressing, given the high hopes that we had during the period he was in office. I can imagine that after the visits he made to Burma at that time, there was a sense that, after decades of military rule, we were moving towards some sort of democracy. In many ways, to be absolutely honest, there are some lessons that we have learned. There was perhaps a small amount of democracy, but, as many will be aware, the Rohingya were not included in the census and they were not allowed to vote in the elections, and in many ways we are seeing elements that are the consequences of that, so there are great lessons to learn.
In relation to my right hon. Friend’s initial point about the Burmese ambassador, we will of course summon him, probably over the next week, to express our deep displeasure at his Government’s action.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
The refusal of visas for the International Development Committee by the Myanmar Government is obviously shocking. It seems to be a response to the Committee’s critical report on the situation of the Rohingya, although it might also be a response to the tightening of EU sanctions, which the Minister mentioned. Banning people seems to be the Burmese Government’s stock response to criticism: they have also banned the UN fact-finding mission, the special rapporteur, and the UN Refugee Agency. The UK has a £100 million aid programme and significant development investments, and we have our own parliamentary strengthening programme. It is completely reasonable for the International Development Committee to visit Myanmar to see how these are going. The Chair is right to say that we need to think again about the parliamentary strengthening programme, but what is the Foreign Office going to do to secure access both for British parliamentarians and for the United Nations agencies?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that these are very difficult issues. We are doing our best to work bilaterally and within the international community to secure that sort of access. We are also working quietly behind the scenes. Individuals known to Aung San Suu Kyi over many years have paid visits to Naypyidaw at least to advise her of the displeasure and concerns of the international community. As I think we both agree, the truth really is that the military to a very large extent have the whip hand in all that is going on in Burma.
We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that we move forwards. We want to see some accountability for the crimes that have been committed. The UN fact-finding mission will come forward with an interim report in the weeks to come. With Mr Speaker’s permission, I hope that we will then have a statement in the House setting out our position regarding the issue of impunity for the future.
I return to my initial point and the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). It is my strong belief that we have always to remember that, frustrating though this situation is, the work done for the most vulnerable must continue. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) pointed out that we spend £100 million a year on aid in Burma. It would be perhaps very easy for us to walk away. To be absolutely honest, we want to try to find more moderate elements within the military that we can begin to work with. We have stopped programmes of training for the military, but we are open-minded. If there are individuals with whom we feel that we should try to keep lines of communication open, we will continue to do so. In many ways, this is one of the frustrations of democracy and diplomacy, but we will continue our work patiently—although with some urgency, for the reasons that I have set out and given the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place on the Bangladeshi side of the border.
Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
Mr Speaker, your own role was instrumental in setting up that parliamentary strengthening programme, the purpose of which is to make Burma’s Parliament more like ours. Therefore, it would be folly to stop it, no matter how insulted we properly feel.
I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns. During the previous Parliament, I was part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and played a role in working together with the Burmese Parliament. We do have integrated programmes. On a cross-party basis, I think, we would not wish to desert—in perhaps Burma’s biggest hour of need—some elements in the country who feel strongly about this matter. Equally, my right hon. Friend will recognise the deep concern that we cannot continue as though it is business as usual in all our relations with the Burmese authorities. I very much hope that we will be able to work with some individuals to make that country a better and more democratic place in the years to come.
Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
It goes without saying how deeply disappointed I am to be in this Chamber along with my International Development Committee colleagues, when we were supposed to be on a planned flight to Burma to see the good work that DFID is doing in the area. It is also with bitter disappointment that I found out just now that Aung San Suu Kyi is personally responsible for blocking the visas for us to see the essential work that we are providing to the poorest and most vulnerable of her citizens in her nation. DFID has a substantial aid programme in Burma, and our job is to go out there to see the good work that is being done. It is with a heavy heart—after hearing what we have heard today—that, as the Member of Parliament for Dundee city, I feel that I will have to recommend the withdrawal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom of the city.
Will the Minister tell me what assurances can be given for future visits to Burma to see the essential work that has been carried out by DFID in the regions, including in Rakhine state? Will he give us an opportunity to seek a further, more detailed explanation, given the fact that we are a democracy that has supported democracy in Burma, particularly Aung San Suu Kyi? I signed the letter mentioned previously and I would endorse anybody else signing it. If war crimes and mass atrocities have been carried out in Rakhine state, it is for all democracies to make their voice heard. Aung San Suu Kyi has been championing democracy in Burma for over 20 years. I hope that she is listening well to this message today, because she should also be speaking out. If any costs have been incurred by this Parliament and lost as a esult of the cancellation of this trip, they should be refunded. Lastly, I ask for an apology from the Burmese authorities.
The hon. Gentleman and I spoke earlier this morning, before the disappointment when it became apparent that the Burmese authorities’ refusal was in place. I wish him and the rest of the Committee all the best in being able to see as much as they can in Bangladesh, but it is a depressing situation, as it would have been more worthwhile for Committee members to have visited Sittwe in Rakhine state, which is where they intended to be.
It is not that I want to defend Aung San Suu Kyi, but equally we have a bilateral relationship and are trying to keep lines of communication open. The recognition has to be that it is the Burmese military that has been responsible for many of the atrocities that have taken place in the aftermath of 25 August. We should not forget that point amidst the great disappointment that is shared by many Members of Parliament, given the great high hopes they had for the new regime when it came into play only a couple of years ago.
On issues of accountability, the immediate task will be to support those who are building evidence and testimony. That task has been ongoing over the past six months. A range of non-governmental organisations is already collecting that testimony, and we are considering how best we can support them. Burma is not a party to the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. Consequently, the ICC would only have jurisdiction over the alleged crime if Burma were to refer itself to the court—an unlikely scenario—or if there were a referral by the UN Security Council, which is also unlikely given the reasons that I have mentioned. We are working through a strategy on impunity and accountability for those who have committed some of these terrible crimes, and hope to come back to the House regarding that before too long.
Mrs Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con)
As a member of the Committee, I am deeply disappointed that we are not going, mainly because we were trying to see how these terribly vulnerable people are being treated on both the Burmese side and the Bangladeshi side. The Bangladesh side is doing a magnificent job in difficult circumstances. We needed to see what DFID is spending the money on and how it is doing that. We recognised that there was a bank holiday and that it was quite dangerous to go to Burma, but we were prepared to go if we possibly could. Now we have been thwarted. I do not know whether there is truth in the statement that Aung San Suu Kyi had a hand in this, but I hope that the Minster will ask, find out and report back to this House because it is an incredibly serious matter. I have admired Aung San Suu Kyi before, as have many millions of people in this country, but the shine will definitely have gone off her halo if she did have a hand in this.
We will do our level best to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and who is responsible. When parliamentarians visit other countries, we are often teased by our constituents, who say that we are just heading off on one big jolly. Many will know I was a very new Minister when I first came to speak on these matters of tragedy in the early part of September, and for my own part my two visits to Burma—to Sittwe in Rakhine, as well as to Rangoon and Naypyidaw—and the opportunity I had to visit Bangladesh have made an immense difference to my understanding of the situation. The work done there is invaluable and visiting really puts that into perspective. A Committee such as this one, which is rightly holding a Government Department to account, needs to be able to see the work being done on the ground.
May I pay some tribute to the Secretary of State, although it is perhaps for the Committee, not for me, to do so? She has expended a huge amount of time, energy and passion on this matter. She is very much on top of the issue, recognising that we have to make some fundamental changes in the way in which we look at programmes, particularly in Burma. We are much respected across the globe for the tremendous contribution that we have made since the Rohingya crisis came to pass some six months ago.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
This is obviously hugely disappointing for the Select Committee. If true, it is shocking to hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) say that Aung San Suu Kyi may have been personally responsible for blocking the visas, although I know that it will not dampen the Committee’s efforts and determination to keep the pressure on. This is a clear signal that the diplomatic relationship is breaking down, which is frankly understandable and in some ways even reassuring, because a regime that commits ethnic cleansing is no ally of ours. The Minister is absolutely right that we must keep supporting and helping those vulnerable people in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya.
May I press the Minister on the issue of accountability for Min Aung Hlaing and those responsible in the military? Could he have discussions with others within the Security Council about the possibility of a resolution to refer those responsible for the atrocities to the International Criminal Court?
I thank the hon. Lady. The UK continues to work to maintain the UN Security Council’s focus on Rakhine. She will be aware that in recent weeks the Syrian issue has obviously been very important, and last autumn there was a lot of focus on what was happening on the Korean peninsula. That is not to say, however, that we are not persistent about trying to make this matter as high profile as possible. At our request, the UN Security Council held an open briefing on 13 February to focus on the very specific issue of returns and the likelihood of those returns happening. Last November, the UK secured the very first UN Security Council statement on Burma—a presidential statement—in a decade, and we will ensure that the Council maintains its focus and attention on what is happening, and has happened, in Burma. We are preparing a response to the report by the fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council, which is due in March, and we co-sponsored the Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions.
On the notion that we have a headlong rush towards a UN Security Council resolution, I have to say that the feeling on the ground in New York from our representatives is that that would almost certainly be vetoed by the Chinese and probably by the Russians as well. That is not to say that we might not test that further at some point, but there are other avenues that we wish to pursue. One of the reasons I have been so pleased to be able to work together with our colleagues in the European Union is that getting sanctions from that quarter will achieve some progress, particularly against leading lights within the military.
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
I am very pleased that the Minister is in his place, because his work on the question of Burma has been impressive over these many months. The work of the ambassador in-country, Andrew Patrick, has been extremely impressive. None of this is down to his failure at all; indeed, I am sure that he could not have done more.
This is a very distressing scene. I am, however, torn between the desire to ensure that we have oversight of the enormous amount of money that we are spending and, as my hon. Friend the Minister puts it, our promotion of the cause of democracy. I speak with an interest, because one of the Clerks who has been to Naypyidaw is the Second Clerk of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Clerk who is going there is also Clerk of the Foreign Affairs Committee. All I can say is that if people learned 1% of the knowledge that those two fabulous individuals could impart, it would be a huge blessing to the Burmese people and a great blessing to the relationship between the United Kingdom and Burma.
I thank my hon. Friend, as ever, for his insights. I will obviously pass that message on.
It is worth pointing out, if I may, a little about the bilateral action that continues to take place. Many Members will be aware that the Foreign Secretary was in Burma during the most recent recess and met Aung San Suu Kyi, stressing that refugees must feel safe returning home and need to be supervised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In fact, the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi no fewer than five times since the crisis began last August. I met her last September. I met the Defence Minister and deputy Foreign Minister, both from the military, when I was in Naypyidaw in November. That work will continue, to try to bring forward as many options for discussion as possible. As my hon. Friend rightly says, there is some fantastic expertise that we need to try to channel, and we must keep the pressure on as far as possible.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has described what has been happening to the Rohingya as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. Is not the withholding of visas from myself and other members of the International Development Committee a textbook case of an authoritarian regime with something to hide trying to shield itself from legitimate international scrutiny? If Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed responsible for that, it is nothing short of disgraceful. Does the Minister agree that all this points to the fact that the international community has to be far more assertive in pressing for unimpeded humanitarian access to Rakhine state?
I do agree. As I say, I do not want to cast judgment until we know the facts about the involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi or other senior members of the regime in the refusal, but it is absolutely right that this is a textbook case of the worst elements of an increasingly closed regime. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, as I said at the outset, that in the midst of our displeasure, anger and frustration at not being able to visit there, we should please, please remember the interests of those millions in Burma who so desperately need our help and support.
Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your letter—your intervention in this case—which was very well received. I think it was Daw Suu herself who said, when she was here, that if she could see the cut and thrust of Prime Minister’s questions, she knew that she was moving towards democracy. Unfortunately, the country is moving in the wrong direction. Since I saw you chair the all-party parliamentary group on Burma in 2005, Mr Speaker, I have always wanted, if I got elected to this place, to help to move the country towards democracy. Now that I am co-chair of the APPG, that is what I intend to do. I am also, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, keen to play my role in looking at economic development in the country; and as an International Development Committee member, keen to look at health and education for the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan and all the other ethnic groups.
Does the Minister agree that now that the International Development Committee is going to be carrying on its work, it will only be speaking to people on the Bangladeshi side, the refugees themselves and the non-governmental organisations, giving a one-sided view that the Burmese Government could otherwise have helped with? Does he also agree that it will make the work far harder for those of us who want to take a holistic view of Burma as a country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work in all those areas, and indeed as the Conservative party’s vice-chairman in charge of London affairs. I do not know where he gets the time to do all this work. Joking aside, I agree with everything he says. In many ways, we need to have a proper perspective on this issue, not just from the Bangladeshi side but from Burma too, in order to see to what extent there is any efficacy in being able to return to Burma at the earliest opportunity.
May I ask all Members here please to keep faith with Burma and the Burmese people? However much we distrust, dislike and wish to dislodge any Government, we must remember that this is important work that is being done. If we do not do it here in the United Kingdom, it is not clear that anyone else is going to have the commitment that we have; part of that, as everyone knows, is for historical reasons. Please keep that faith.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
I am, of course, disappointed by this, as one of the Committee members refused a visa. I am also deeply disappointed as a Member of Parliament who represents a city that not only gave Aung San Suu Kyi the freedom of our city but allowed her to curate the Brighton festival a number of years ago. This is a huge personal disappointment for me. Aung San Suu Kyi seems more and more now to be part of the problem, and not the solution, in some of the ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This is happening not just to the Rohingya but also perhaps to Chinese nationals and Christian minorities in Burma. Will the Government consider convening an emergency summit to put sanctions in place not only against Burma but possibly even Aung San Suu Kyi’s family assets here in the UK? Will we immediately review some of our other aid projects such as the £5 million that we gave to Yangon University in a project with Oxford University last month, to make sure that that money is not being used for academic work that undermines the Rohingya? Could we at least try to go to the Security Council to get a referral to the ICC? It is better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that, apart from the issue around the Rohingya—terrible though it is, and on a different scale from other minorities—other minorities have also suffered in that country, often for many decades. I take on board much of what he said. I have covered some of the issues about why we have not gone for a UN Security Council resolution at this stage. I hope that whatever investment is being made between the universities of Oxford and Yangon, some of it may be for very positive reasons, and we should not necessarily criticise it. However, we need to get to the bottom of that.
Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)
I was very depressed to learn the news last night that the visas had not come through. I do not know whether the Burmese authorities think we are going to now just give up, shrug our shoulders and walk away. We are not going to do that. They have to understand that we are a democratically elected Parliament, and we are a democratically elected Select Committee. We even elect our own Chair. Within our own Parliament, we do not have a quota for the military; everybody is elected in exactly the same manner. It is important to stress that the money we give is there for the people and does not go to the military regime or through the military regime. The reason it is so much is because of the military regime.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for everything you have done. You were one of the champions for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest, and you were able to get her to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, which is a unique privilege for someone who is not officially a Head of State. I ask you and the Minister of State to carry on with your work, because the Rohingya problem is not going to go away. We are going to Bangladesh to see part of the problem, but we want to go to Burma, and we want to see exactly how our money is being spent. I implore both of you to carry on and see if that can be done this year.
It is a great pleasure to speak on behalf of the Speaker on this matter. Some of us have worries about getting a word in edgeways at times, it has to be said, but I thank you, Mr Speaker. This is not a time for great levity, and I understand that these are very serious issues.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. We will do our best to ensure that what is happening to the Rohingya and to other minorities—for those of us who have the interests of Burma and Burmese people in their heart—continues to have a high profile in the months and years to come.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Can I associate myself, as a former member of the Select Committee, with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and share my horror at what we have seen afflicting the Rohingya people? Many of my constituents have written to me about this, and they rely on Committees such as the International Development Committee to shine a light on these dark situations and find out what is really going on.
I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to look closely at examples from the past such as our relationship with Zimbabwe. We were able to continue to support the people of Zimbabwe while they had a despotic and unacceptable regime. We have managed that careful balance very well, and I hope we will continue in that regard.
It is very unusual for visas to be denied in this way. Is the Minister aware—if not, perhaps he could write to me—of any other recent examples of countries denying visas to parliamentarians? I suspect it is very rare and would not put Burma in enviable company.
I must confess that these seem to me unique circumstances. They may well not be, but I will try to write to him to confirm exactly what the situation has been with regard to visa refusals of this sort.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
Can I get assurances from Her Majesty’s Government that not a single penny of British taxpayers’ money will go to the regime in Burma, which not only practises genocide but is becoming a rogue state?
I think all of us recognise that we do not wish to do anything that props up a regime. May I add a slight caveat? We are entirely transparent on these matters. It is also the case that we need to keep lines of communication open, and if it is felt on the ground, not least by our ambassador, Andrew Patrick, that there are individuals with whom we should try to keep lines of communication open, which may mean bringing them to London and the like, I would not want to rule that out. My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point.
Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
Despite their Government’s attempts to conceal the facts, the Burmese military’s actions in Rakhine look a lot like ethnic cleansing. Is it not time that the international community started treating it as ethnic cleansing?
Please be assured that that work continues internationally. As I have pointed out, it is difficult to do this in the usual context, which is a UN Security Council resolution, because it would be vetoed. We had the President’s statement in November, to which I referred. Understandably and rightly, much of the world’s focus must be on the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening and that could get worse on the Bangladeshi side of the border. Equally, there is now an increasing focus—I have had many meetings in recent weeks and months here in London and beyond—on the diplomatic and political solution, not least addressing the very issues that my hon. Friend raises.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
I visited the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp at the end of last year with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and two nurses from Kettering General Hospital recently returned from the Rohingya camps, where they were successfully combating the spread of disease. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the problem on the Bangladeshi side of the border? Bangladesh has been incredibly generous in hosting the Rohingya refugees and going out of its way to assist them, but the Bangladeshis are overwhelmed with visa applications from international aid workers and the like, and they are having difficulty processing those visas in a timely way, which is holding up some of the delivery of aid. Is there anything we can do to assist the Bangladeshis in overcoming that problem?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is something we have identified. We are working with DFID to try to speed it up, and our embassy in Dhaka has made and will continue to make representations, to ensure that as far as possible, NGOs and others, particularly in relation to medical help, are properly and quickly able to get people on the ground in Bangladesh.