Burma: A plight we can ignore no longer

The people of Burma endure human rights abuses on an unimaginable scale. Rape, torture and forced labour are facts of their lives. So why does the world refuse to act? A cross-party group of MPs has returned shocked by what they discovered there
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The Independent Online

Burma suffers a political, human rights and humanitarian situation as grim as any in the world today. The country is run by an utterly illegitimate government that spends 50 per cent of its budget on the military and less than a $1 (50p) per head on the health and education of its own citizens.

The thugs and impostors who rule the roost practise some of the most egregious human rights abuses known to mankind. Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, water torture, mass displacement, compulsory relocation, forced labour, incarceration of political prisoners, religious and ethnic persecution, and the daily destruction of rural villages are all part of the story of savagery that has disfigured Burma.

People lack access to food, water, sanitation and the most basic health and education provision. Twice over the past three years, I have met just a handful of the 500,000 internally displaced people in eastern Burma and the 100,000 living in refugee camps in Thailand, victims of the wanton savagery of the Burmese Army.

Harrowing accounts of children dying from malnutrition, women perishing in childbirth and people succumbing to HIV, malaria and tuberculosis will remain indelibly imprinted upon my mind if I live to be 100. Most shocking of all was the experience of meeting children who told me they had seen their parents shot dead and parents who were forced to watch their children's summary execution.

Infectious diseases are approaching epidemic levels and 71 per cent of the population are at risk of malaria. A 2006 estimate of the child mortality rate in eastern Burma was 221 per 1000, compared to 205 in the DRC. Health spending is the lowest in the world (0.5 per cent of GDP) and 60 per cent of households have no education at all.

Yet Burma receives the lowest aid of all Least Developed Countries. The DfID's current budget of £8.8m is paltry compared to countries with similar poverty levels and human rights records. It amounts to just a quarter of the budget for Zimbabwe.

DfID has long prioritised working in-country, despite the draconian access restrictions imposed by the regime. By contrast, it has spurned the opportunity to support cross-border assistance which alone is capable of meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable and destitute. It was only after concerted pressure earlier this year that DfID even allowed its funds to be spent on cross-border work. Yet this belated shift of policy was itself an empty gesture as it offered not a penny extra for the purpose.

Our Committee visited refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border and was astonished to hear DfID visits them so infrequently. We were deeply dismayed that DfID plans to relocate all its staff to Rangoon, despite the importance of working with exile groups on the Thai border and the limitations of working with the regime in Rangoon.

DfID policy needs to change at once. First, it should quadruple its budget for Burma by 2013.

Secondly, its programme must include complementary in-country and cross-border approaches to ensure even coverage of the most vulnerable people across the country.

Thirdly, it should begin appropriate funding for exile groups, such as trade unions and women's organisations, to support them in raising awareness, giving assistance to IDPs and building capacity to prepare for transition to democracy.

Good work is undoubtedly done in Burma by dedicated international public servants and experienced NGOs. Yet the blunt truth is that we are failing the people of Burma. Co-ordination is abysmal, communication with border groups and exile organisations is pitiful and the policy response to the continuing humanitarian crisis is frankly dysfunctional.

Douglas Alexander is nobody's fool and he clearly relishes his new job. I urge him to see the weakness of current policy and to heed the International Development Select Committee's advice to change it decisively for the benefit of millions of people in Burma who have suffered too much for too long with too little done to alleviate their plight.

MPs who went to Burma

Malcolm Bruce, Chairman, Gordon Liberal Democrats; John Battle, Leeds West, Labour; Hugh Bayley, City of York Labour; Mr John Bercow, Buckingham, Conservative; Richard Burden, Birmingham, Northfield Labour; Mr Quentin Davies, Grantham and Stamford, Labour; James Duddridge, Rochford and Southend East, Conservative; Ann McKechin, Glasgow North, Labour; Joan Ruddock, Lewisham, Deptford, Labour; Mr Marsha Singh, Bradford West, Labour; Sir Robert Smith, Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine, Liberal Democrat