British firms told to trade with Burma

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The Independent Online
A little-known Government quango is encouraging British companies to trade with Burma at a time when other countries are severing their commercial ties with the South-east Asian state in protest at its human rights record.

On Wednesday Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, will vote on a Danish proposal to implement sanctions against Burma. The boycott resolution was prompted by anger at Burma's military rulers following the death in a Rangoon jail last month of James Nichols, a businessman who was also honorary consul for the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland.

While the rest of the world votes with its feet over Burma's treatment of Mr Nichols and a range of abuses from slave labour to summary executions and torture, Peter Godwin, chairman of the DTI's Asia Pacific Advisory Group, is urging British businesses to head in the other direction.

Only last month, the Government voiced its opposition to Burma's human rights abuses. Jeremy Hanley, the Foreign Office minister, told the Commons that the Government was "carrying out our policy in support of democratic reform and human rights in Burma".

While Mr Hanley was saying this and while Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prize winner and head of Burma's pro-democracy movement, was imploring foreign governments not to invest in her country while there was a military dictatorship, it was business as usual for British companies and the DTI.

The Asia Pacific Advisory Group is a 30-strong body which advises DTI officials and ministers on trade with the region. Like the Government's Overseas Projects Board, which was the subject of controversy during the Pergau dam affair for having among its members companies involved in the project, the advisory group enjoys a direct, influential route into Whitehall.

Mr Godwin, managing director of West Merchant Bank in the City of London, also chairs the Myanmar-Britain Business Association, set up to foster trade with Myanmar, the military rulers' official name for Burma. In its newsletter, the association boasts of preferential access to the Burmese government, a one-hour, fast-track visa service and discounts on holidays. In February, the association and the DTI helped organise a trade mission to Burma. The DTI and the Myanmar Embassy in London are listed as ex-officio members of the trade association.

Mr Godwin said he was aware of Burma's poor human rights record. "One is conscious of that but it applies to countries around the world where we do business - you have got to have a sense of balance." Burma, said Mr Godwin, was not as bad as it was painted. "I don't like some of the things they've done in the past but things have been looking brighter in the last year or two."

The opposition, he claimed, "flourishes to a greater extent than one realises". He said Aung San Suu Kyi "has weekend meetings and thousands turn up".

The job of the advisory group, said Mr Godwin, was to "advise potential exporters and investors about opportunities, and ministers on aspects of policy". He said a blockade of Burma was not the right step and it was better to get to know the leaders better and make them see sense.

Derek Fatchett, shadow foreign affairs minister, said Mr Godwin's position and the ties between his trade association and the DTI was "another example of the government saying one thing in public and doing another in private".

A DTI spokeswoman said there was no conflict between Mr Godwin's role as head of the trade association and an adviser to the department. She said the Government deplored human rights abuses but felt that "depriving Burma of trade will not help the Burmese people".