Dáil debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Question 87: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he is in a position to give information on the whereabouts of the 4,000 monks, among others, arrested in Rangoon, detained outside of their monasteries and removed to an unspecified destination; if he has sought information; and if the European Union has raised the matter with the Burmese Government. [24974/07]

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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Question 107: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position regarding diplomatic relations with Burma in view of the appalling record of the regime there on human rights and its suppression of democracy. [24905/07]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 111: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the extent to which he directly or in conjunction with his EU or UN colleagues has attempted to bring positive influence to bear on the situation in Burma; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25042/07]

Photo of Jack WallJack Wall (Kildare South, Labour)
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Question 114: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position of the Government on new initiatives at the level of the Security Council of the United Nations to impose an arms embargo on Burma with the intention ofputting an end to sales and arms transfers. [25000/07]

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Question 120: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the links Ireland has with the regime in Burma; if he has raised concern with respect to the reported treatment of demonstrators there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25010/07]

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Question 132: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action taken by this State as a member of the European Union and in the United Nations with regard to the situation in Myanmar, Burma; his views on whether the lives of those who demonstrated against the junta are at risk; the number of persons currently being detained as a consequence of the protest and demonstrations that took place; and the steps being taken to enable the Red Cross to have access to those being detained. [25044/07]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 319: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action he will take unilaterally or in conjunction with his EU or UN colleagues to address the situation in Burma; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25471/07]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 320: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, together with the international community, it has been possible to intervene with or influence the Burmese authorities with a view to protecting human life and introducing an international investigative element to the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25472/07]

4:00 pm

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

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I am grateful for the Minister's comprehensive reply and I appreciate he replied to a number of questions. I am also grateful for the consensus that appears to exist in regard to events in Burma.

My question is concentrated specifically on the whereabouts of 4,000 people who were arrested mostly in Rangoon and elsewhere and whom it is widely perceived have been initially detained but possibly moved to the north of the country and to labour camps. It is a specific question. It is urgent that Mr. Pinheiro should have access to the whereabouts of these people. Does the Minister agree that if the European Union is to establish a special relationship, as it were, in regard to the crisis in Burma, it should be strongly driven by human rights considerations and should have the capacity to examine the detention and removal of people and the enforced labour camps?

Does the Minister agree that there is a small window of opportunity between now and the holding of the Olympic Games during which to drive forward a measure for a better set of results? Will he agree, for example, that after 2004 what was called constructive dialogue with the regime in Burma bore little, if any, fruit? For example, China and India, which are quoted now to be positive to such an approach, have expanded their trade to a much greater extent than the level of the sanctions imposed by the European Union curtailing trade.

In regard to the Gambari project, which I understand is political in intention, Mr. Pinheiro will need the fullest access possible to answer the questions I have posed and he is in a position to say that either his office or representatives of the European Union will have access to address the issues I raised?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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In regard to an earlier question on trade posed by Deputy Naughten or Deputy Timmins, I said that no trade took place, but I wish to clarify that in 2006 a small trade figure of €152,000 is recorded, mainly in respect of the pharmaceutical sector.

Returning to Deputy Higgins's question, I agree with him about the access Mr. Pinheiro should receive. That is one of the reasons the EU is taking a particularly strong view on the human rights issue. On the basis of the Swedish proposal, we do not want to cut across what Dr. Gambari is doing. A proposal in regard to an EU envoy hopefully would dovetail exactly what he is doing to ensure that the views of the EU partners, particularly Ireland, Sweden and others who have emphasised the issue of human rights, are taken on board.

As regards the disappearance of people in Burma, it is the job of Dr. Gambari and Mr. Pinheiro to examine that issue and that ultimately depends on the type of access that is given by Burmese authorities. Thankfully, so far, they appear to be relatively open in terms of access that has been given. Dr. Gambari met Aung San Suu Kyi on two occasions when he was there recently, which we regarded as positive. We understand that in regard to Mr. Pinheiro's visit, facilitation will be given to allow him to examine the situation on the ground, but we will have to wait and see what happens.

In regard to dealing with the neighbouring countries, in the context of ASEAN, any suggestion that we should in some way turn our back on the discussions between the EU and ASEAN is not fruitful. Some suggest that a ban on the Olympic Games should be considered with regard to matters on which China has an influence, such as Darfur. With regard to Burma, China has been responsible and responsive to the international community's exhortation on facilitating visas for Dr. Gambari and Mr. Pinheiro. This also applies to being part of a strong ASEAN move against the Burmese regime. We must consider this and not rule out anything. We have a substantial presence in Dr. Gambari and the UN. Hopefully this will be supplemented by ASEAN and EU countries.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. At an early point the International Red Cross sought access to Burma to ascertain the whereabouts of prisoners, if prisoners are detained in detention centres and how they are being treated. Does the Minister have information in this regard? Has he communicated with the Chinese Government? In replying to Deputy Timmins the Minister stated he made direct contact with the Chinese. What response did he receive? Has the Government information, directly or communicated through the UN or EU member states, on how those who protested and disappeared are currently being treated? Does the Government have specific concerns about this issue?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Regarding China's response, because the local NGO group was refused access to deliver a letter to the Chinese Embassy, I took it upon myself to write to the Chinese Foreign Minister. I asked my officials to intervene with the Chinese Embassy in Dublin and the Indian Embassy at the beginning of the protest. The response from China was favourable. It surprised the international community that China was prepared to accept strong statements of condemnation of events in Burma at the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council.

Regarding the disappearances, Ireland is part of the international consensus call for the facilitation of access by the International Red Cross to examine disappearance and detention.

I referred earlier to Irish people. There were five Irish citizens in Burma. Three were tourists, while two were residents in Burma. We are happy that all five are safe. Those who visited as tourists returned home and the two who remained, one of whom was a Buddhist nun, are safe. From a national point of view, we have established that our people are safe through our colleagues in the EU.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Is there any indication that the International Red Cross will be allowed access?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Not so far.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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China is the country with by far the greatest influence on Myanmar. There is a window of opportunity in the context of the run-up to the Olympic Games. What steps might be taken to encourage talks with the pro-democracy movement and particularly Aung San Suu Kyi, which would be the way forward? Has the EU sought access for a mission in the context of further sanctions? Is there room for negotiation on that issue so that the EU can send a mission to Burma in the context of the detentions, to observe the human rights situation?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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On the issue of the Olympic Games, the point has been made many times that China will be very aware of the international communities' view and very precious and cautious regarding the impact that might have on the games. Without being too overt about it, China has responded and has played a very valuable role in the recent events. Hopefully that will continue with regard to, for instance, allowing people from the Red Cross to enter Burma, as we would wish.

With regard to EU interaction, a substantial number of EU countries do not have representation in Burma. We wish to work with our UN colleagues. Dr. Gambari is leading the response of the international community in trying to give a clear message that the international community is united against what happened on this occasion but also to indicate that there is a carrot as well as a stick approach available. When I say stick, I am referring to the possibility of further sanctions. The carrot approach aims to show the regime that there would be opportunities for economic development. It is clear that any further sanctions, as discussed by the EU, would only be implemented if they did not have an effect on the general population but primarily on those who were responsible for the atrocities that have taken place.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Has the European Union considered sending a mission to Burma? It is very clear that such a mission would be independent of the neighbouring countries and therefore would have more flexibility. It could be effective with regard to going past the point of detention to having talks addressed at reconciliation, inclusive of those who support Aung San Suu Kyi. I have in mind somebody such as Marti Atisari, an outsider, who could facilitate talks towards reconciliation. Has the European Union practically suggested the establishment of a mission to be followed by somebody with experience who is capable of delivering fruitful talks? Is that being considered by the EU at present?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The possibility of an EU envoy working in tandem with the UN Special Envoy, Dr. Gambari, was discussed in Luxembourg at the foreign affairs GAERC meeting and again in Lisbon last week. It was suggested that it would give support and feedback to European Union members with regard to the issue of the disappeared and detained and to determine how positive progress could be made. Burma currently receives substantial levels of overseas development aid from the European Union. There could be a win-win situation for the Burmese because if they respond positively to the entreaties of the international community, the EU will be able to increase its humanitarian assistance and perhaps its economic assistance. Unfortunately, the struggle for democratisation and national reconciliation has taken 14 years to date and has not progressed very far. It is for the international community to put pressure on the Burmese authorities to ensure that democracy and reconciliation are put in place much quicker than has been the case heretofore.