Dáil debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 87, 107, 111, 114, 120, 132, 319 and 320 together. I refer the House to the reply I gave to Priority Question No. 84, which sets out our general approach. The international community has sent a very clear signal to the Burmese regime that we are prepared to stand together to ensure that the days of impunity are over. There has been a strong statement by the UN Security Council and a forceful consensus resolution by the UN Human Rights Council. The concerns of the international community have been communicated to the highest levels of the Burmese regime by the special representative of the UN Secretary General, Dr. Ibrahim Gambari. Significantly, there have also been unprecedented statements and diplomatic activity on the part of Burma's neighbours, particularly by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, its members, and China.

The Government has long taken a strong position on the situation in Burma, including the awful human rights situation and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. It has been the Government's consistent position that no steps should be taken to develop diplomatic relations with Burma until Aung San Suu Kyi is released. I would add that given the current situation, it would be unimaginable that we would establish relations without significant improvements on the ground. As I made very clear in my earlier answer, Ireland remains active, with the EU, in seeking to build and maintain this pressure on the Burmese regime for real and positive change.

The situation in Burma remains very serious. Through brutal repression, the military regime has forced the protests off the streets but now employs a vicious programme of raids, ongoing arrests, disappearances, beatings and torture to create what it calls "normalcy". The regime has further targeted key democracy activists, many of whom have been arrested, have disappeared or have been forced to flee. I remain deeply concerned for the safety of those involved in the protests and for those who continue to campaign for democracy in Burma.

The regime itself acknowledges that 3,000 people have been detained but the true figure is likely to be much higher. Some have been released but large numbers, including many monks, remain in custody or unaccounted for. As the prisons fill, many of these are held in makeshift detention centres — all in appalling conditions. I reiterate the consensus call of the UN Human Rights Council for Burma to release all detainees and political prisoners and to facilitate humanitarian access, including access by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Also, in line with the Human Rights Council's resolution, Burma must co-operate fully with the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Sergio Pinheiro, including through the urgent facilitation of a visit by him to that country. As I said earlier, that has now been put in place.

At the same time, it cannot be forgotten that the recent violent suppression of protests is not an isolated incident. It has occurred in the context of ongoing brutal military actions against ethnic minorities and a worsening humanitarian crisis. In this context, I believe it is appropriate for the international community to seek to deny the Burmese regime access to military equipment. Very regrettably, however, the chances of the Security Council agreeing to a formal arms embargo are slim. I note that the EU has maintained an arms embargo against Burma since 1990.

EU Foreign Ministers agreed last week on a series of further targeted sanctions, which I believe will increase pressure on the regime, and made clear our willingness to impose further sanctions, including a ban on new investments. This sends a clear signal that the EU will not allow the Burmese regime to act with impunity. However, at the same time, we sent a clear signal to the regime of the benefits that might accrue from positive engagement with the Gambari process and genuine, substantive political change. The EU will continue to work closely with Burma's neighbours and all those who have influence on the regime to drive this message home.

The Burmese regime must now act to end the violence against its own people and seize the opportunity represented by Dr. Gambari's mission. It should meaningfully engage with democratic parties and representatives of ethnic groups to build a real and sustainable political process in Burma leading to democratisation and national reconciliation.

In his report to the UN Security Council at the beginning of this month, Dr. Gambari suggested useful first steps. These are the creation of a broad-based grouping to look at the work to date on a new constitution and the establishment of a poverty alleviation commission to identify and address the country's major socioeconomic needs. These proposals make sense and, if implemented, would appear to offer the best way forward for the people of Burma.

Burma's neighbours continue to offer a particularly important role. The reality is that their regional pressure, while it may not be as forthright as we would wish, is essential. I greatly welcome the role they have played so far, facilitating action at the UN and ensuring the facilitation of Dr. Gambari's mission by the Burmese regime. It is important that those who have influence on the regime continue to convince the regime of the need for positive actions.

The ASEAN countries are considering what further action they might take and are examining options such as a multilateral forum along the lines of the six party talks covering North Korea and-or an ASEAN special envoy or an ASEAN troika mission to Burma. We would be strongly supportive of such initiatives and, with our EU partners, will seek to further encourage this positive role at the EU-ASEAN Summit next month in Singapore.

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