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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Humanitarian assistance and Fairtrade

Monday, June 16, 2008

Meg was invited by David Chaytor, MP for Bury North, to speak at a meeting he had organised with Tearfund at the Holcombe Brook Methodist Church in his constituency. Her speech is below.

 

Thank you for coming along this morning.

 

My Ministerial job is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a long title! My responsibilities include Britain’s relationship with Central America, the Caribbean, South-East Asia and what is called the UK Overseas Territories some colleagues in Parliament have nick-named me the Minister for Hot Places! 

 

I understand from David that many of you are supporters of various international humanitarian issues, as well as fair trade between the so-called developed and developing countries. I intend to mainly talk about Burma, but will talk about fairtrade.

 

Extraordinary pictures

Last September and early October the situation in Burma dominated TV and our newspapers front pages - the extraordinary pictures of monks and Burmese citizens showing incredible bravery in standing up against the military regime. We saw those same monks and citizens suffering appalling violence, including TV footage of the shooting dead of a Japanese journalist.

 

That was followed by mass arrests, invasion of monasteries by the army, beatings, suppression of anything that might show that the Burmese people wanted political change. The military regime tried to shut down the opportunities for the true story of what was happening to come out.

 

The events of last year provided the best opportunity for nearly 20 years to try and achieve change, a move to a more democratic society. We need continued international engagement that the protests of last autumn created, and crucially the sense of moral outrage that was articulated around the world following the brutal crackdown.

 

Since then of course Burma has suffered the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. Burma faces the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region since the tsunami in 2004, with thousands homeless and at risk of disease.

 

I have been working with a number of countries to ensure that badly needed supplies get to the Burmese people. They need clean drinking water, food, shelter and medicine. But it soon became clear that the Burmese military regime was not going to accept the aid freely offered by the international community

 

The Burmese military leadership have refused to face up to the magnitude of the disaster, even refusing to take telephone calls from the UN Secretary-General. Their attitude led to intense lobbying of countries in the region that have influence over the Burmese regime. Every effort was made to assure them that this was a humanitarian response, and that there was no political intent.

 

We are focused on trying to persuade the regime to let in foreign aid and workers. Hopefully the regime will allow help spear headed by the countries in the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN).

 

Foreign journalists are kept out of Burma, and without their reports and pictures on our TV’s the story has declined in the media. The story dies, and so do hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Burmese men, women and children. We need to do what we can to ensure that the Burmese people are not forgotten. 

 

We have taken a leading role in the international effort to assist in the aftermath of the cyclone, and in the longer term addressing the internal politics within Burma. We have been engaged in extensive lobbying and negotiations for strong and coordinated international effort to secure reconciliation and reform.

 

Deeply flawed political process

During these dreadful circumstances Burma the military regime chose to go ahead with a referendum on the country’s constitution. Even before the cyclone the referendum was judged unlikely to be free and fair; now the outcome is without any credibility whatsoever.

 

The regime’s intentions are clear but the process as currently conceived is deeply flawed. They ruled out the involvement of anybody in the political process who is or has been married to a foreigner. This was a clear attempt to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi. Her statement of 8th November indicated that she is willing to work with all parties to address the various challenges that Burma faces, but the military are showing no signs of reciprocating.

 

We continue to encourage countries in the region with influence on the military regime to keep up the pressure for reconciliation and reform. To this end the Prime Minister raised Burma with Chinese President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao and with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visits earlier this year. We believe that ASEAN collectively, and its individual member states, have a key role to play in pursuing reform in their fellow member state, Burma.

 

Last November I attended the ASEAN-EU summit and had a number of meetings with Foreign Ministers to press the case for concerted action. I also met Ibrahim Gambari, the UN envoy to Burma, to get first hand his reaction following his visit, and I have been in regular contact with him since then. In addition whilst on ministerial visits to the region I have extensively lobbied a number of the neighbouring ASEAN countries, as well as others who may have influence over the Burmese regime.

 

A model for Burma?

While ASEAN itself remains relatively uninvolved as they adopt an approach of non interference, the positions of the individual countries are different. Earlier this year I visited Thailand after their return to democracy following elections in December. I met a number of Ministers, including their Foreign Minister, who indicated Thailand will be urging Burma to respond to the concerns of the international community. I have met him again on his visit to the UK and continue to press the UK’s position about Burma.  Indonesia similarly believes that their experience of moving from military dictatorship to elected government could be a model for Burma.

 

The EU has formally adopted extended sanctions on Burma including the prohibition of the import of timber, metals, minerals and precious and semi-precious stones, and an investment ban in these sectors.  We are ready to establish further restrictive measures if we see no, or limited, progress. There is anecdotal evidence that the sanctions are dissuading foreign investors in the country.

 

The current situation is difficult. We can argue about the different strengths and weaknesses of sanctions versus engagement; especially after the consequences of the cyclone. So far neither has achieved the changes we’ve been seeking. If the regime fails to take significant steps towards establishing a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with the opposition under UN auspices, we must consider additional steps at both the UN and the EU to bring pressure to bear.

 

Conversely, if a process of change begins, we are ready to support economic initiatives that bring the international community and International Financial Institutions together in support of a recovery plan for Burma. This would be strictly conditional on genuine and irreversible progress towards democracy.

 

In the meantime, the UK is a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. UK has doubled its aid to Burma from 9m to 18m per annum to meet Burma’s urgent humanitarian needs as well as extra assistance to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone. We are currently the largest single donor to the cyclone relief providing 27million. In addition the UK population has made donations of over 6m. This will help ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer because of the actions of the regime.

 

There are a number of international organisations who support, directly or indirectly, the Burmese regime. Unlike the Co-operative Bank whose ethical policy is to refuse the use of its banking services to any organisation that has dealings with the Burmese military regime.

 

Which brings me on to fairtrade.

 

Fairtrade

As a co-operator I’m very please that the Co-operative retail movement is the leading British retailer for Fairtrade products. It was the first major retailer to sell fair-trade products in its stores back in 1994. This follows in the tradition of the co-operative movement - doing business fairly, honestly and democratically, in a world that exploited the weak, with few rights for workers, unfair trading practices and poverty.

 

The object of fair-trade, to ensure that producers of a product receive a fair share for its production, is something I believe in. It also goes with the grain of helping countries that at present rely mainly on sales of agricultural products get a larger share of the worlds GNP and thus enabled to spend on the needs of their own people.

 

As well as being beneficial for the grower, Fairtrade products usually offer the consumer a better quality, including fewer pesticides and more organic cultivation. Growers naturally select the best of their crops for Fairtrade because they receive a higher price for these.

 

The Fairtrade Mark provides reassurance to customers who want to buy products they can trust. Through the Co-operative Food stores alone, Fairtrade sales exceeded 40million in 2006 (out of UK total of 290million) compared to just 100,000 in 1998.

 

Through Fairtrade, we’re encouraging poorer farmers to help themselves out of poverty because we don’t believe it is right that they should be disadvantaged. The world is currently suffering from high food prices but the best way to help those in developing countries beat food shortages and poverty is giving them the tools and capabilities to help themselves. It is Fairtrade which is leading the way in doing just that.

 

Thank you for listening. I’m happy to take questions and comments.

Associated Photograph :

Meg with David Chaytor MP and Mike Chesterton, regional co-ordinator for the North West for Tearfund, who chaired the meeting

Meg with David Chaytor MP and Mike Chesterton, regional co-ordinator for the North West for Tearfund, who chaired the meeting


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