Tuesday, 8 March 2005
As I have stated in previous replies, Ireland announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on a non-resident basis with Burma on 13 February 2004. However, the progress anticipated in 2004, most notably the meeting of an open and unhindered national convention and the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, did not materialise. In the circumstances, the Government decided to put on hold the exchange of non-residential ambassadors. I have made it clear that any decision to proceed with such an exchange will now have to await significant and positive moves by the Burmese authorities.
The Government has consistently pursued a strong line in support of democracy in Burma. With our EU partners, we remain strongly critical of the continued detention under house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, other activists and a number of MPs elected in 1990. We also condemn the absence of political progress, continuing serious human rights abuses and overall lack of fundamental freedoms in Burma.
On 2 December 2004, I issued a statement condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of the Burmese Government the previous day to extend the detention under house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for another year. I also called on the Burmese authorities to allow the UN Secretary General's special envoy, Mr. Razali Ismail, to travel to Burma at the earliest opportunity and, while there, to visit Aung San Suu Kyi. The EU Presidency also issued a declaration on 10 December 2004 condemning her continued detention.
Reports suggest approximately 15,000 prisoners have been freed over recent months by the Burmese authorities. While I welcome these releases, I regret they only include a limited number of political prisoners. Last week, I met Mr. Yawnghwe, director of the European office for the development of democracy in Burma, a joint project of the European Commission and the Olaf Palme International Centre in Sweden to promote democracy in Burma. He was accompanied by members of Burma Action Ireland. The meeting was part of a regular dialogue between my Department and the key non-governmental organisations concerned with the situation in Burma. Among other issues, I discussed the matter of diplomatic relations with Burma, making it clear there was no question of an exchange of ambassadors until such time as the situation there substantially changed for the better.
Does the Minister agree that the decision in early 2004 to open diplomatic relations with both Burma and North Korea was the most bizarre and ill-judged? It gave an air of respectability to those two areas of repression, that have been described as outposts of tyranny. In the case of Burma, does the Minister agree that this decision, based on assumption that the opposition leader was to be released, was a serious error of judgment? Will he give a clear signal to these two regimes that their lack of action towards implementing democracy cannot be tolerated? Will he tell them Ireland has no further interest in establishing diplomatic relations until such time as democracy is put into force in their respective countries?
I do not accept these were ill-judged decisions. In Burma's case, it was decided on the basis that it was indicated that Aung San Suu Kyi would be released and her party would be allowed to participate in the Burmese national convention. However, this did not happen. This decision was made in the context of Ireland's EU Presidency term. We could not look at it in a bilateral context. We had to be able to deal directly as holders of the EU Presidency with the Burmese authorities. This was the same with North Korea. I do not agree, therefore, with Deputy Allen's claims.
Given that the situation has gone the wrong way, our absolute commitment is that we will not exchange non-residential ambassadors until such time as the situation has changed for the better. While there are no indications in this respect, it is better to engage with people and have some influence with them rather than turning one's back and issuing statements from afar.
Constant efforts at engagement have been made through the EU and whatever influence we have with neighbouring states in the region. Burma is in a pivotal situation and must be dealt with in a delicate way. Every other fora, such as the ASEAN conference, is used to get our point across. It is accepted that the Burmese authorities have refused all overtures, not only those of Ireland but of many other states. In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, I pushed strongly for the EU to engage with the Burmese authorities in providing assistance for the ordinary Burmese people. I also pushed for NGOs, particularly Irish ones, to be allowed into Burma. All overtures made in that respect were rejected. Burma, for whatever reason, did not suffer as badly as other states in the affected region.