Mr. Chairman, thank you for your invitation to testify on the human rights situation in Burma and on U.S. policy towards that country.
I hope we will take a moment to think about the movement she represents. Its efforts have repeatedly been met with violence, yet it has never fought fire with fire -- it has stuck steadfastly to a non-violent path. Its members have been ruthlessly persecuted, many killed, others imprisoned or forced into exile, yet still it preaches reconciliation with the military government of Burma. All it truly demands is dialogue -- a solution to Burma's problems that is negotiated calmly between its government and its people. It has been said by some that this movement is stubborn and inflexible. It is unfathomable to me that any serious and objective person could say this. I cannot think of any opposition movement under similar circumstances that has been as patient and as willing to compromise as the Burmese democracy movement. When these men and women speak to us, Mr. Chairman, and when they ask us to back their struggle and the strategy they have chosen to pursue it, we need to listen with a high degree of humility and respect.
Continuing Human Rights Abuses
Most discussions about Burma begin by mentioning the leader of the Burmese struggle for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains today under house arrest following a brutal attack on her and her traveling party on May 30th of last year. Before the attack, Aung San Suu Kyi had been traveling through northern and central Burma gathering large crowds at every stop, urging dialogue with the government and a peaceful transition to democracy. This evidence of her popularity clearly unsettled a regime that is deeply insecure about its own survival. At many of these stops, her supporters were harassed by members of the Union Solidarity Development Association, a government-created organization that has increasingly taken on a paramilitary character (and which has aptly been described as the “Fedayeen of Burma”). Then, on the evening of May 30th, Suu Kyi’s party was assaulted by armed thugs associated with the USDA. According to eyewitnesses, police were present, as were common criminals released from prison for the purpose of taking part in the attack.
As the State Department has put it, this was a premeditated ambush. Given the Burmese military’s role in creating and guiding the USDA, it is fair to conclude that the country’s leadership ordered the attack, and to hold it accountable for the deaths of unarmed members of Suu Kyi’s party. There must be an impartial investigation of these events – something I hope will be called for in this year’s resolution on Burma at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Now, almost ten months later, there are indications that Suu Kyi may be released from house arrest. That would certainly be welcome news. But there is a danger here, Mr. Chairman. For the Burmese government has played this game before. It arrests Suu Kyi. A crisis ensues. It releases her. The illusion of progress is achieved. Governments, particularly in the region, hail this progress and suggest that more is to come. But the people of Burma continue to suffer.
This struggle is about much, much more than freedom for Suu Kyi and her political party. In fact, that is not at all what Suu Kyi herself has been sacrificing for all these years. It is about establishing civilian government, pluralism, the rule of law and respect for human rights for all the people of Burma. Those rights were systematically denied before May 30th and continue to be denied today.
The government continues to hold more than 1,400 political prisoners, including elected members of parliament. Though some 500 have been released since intermittent talks between the government and the NLD began in 2000, Burmese citizens have continued to be arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for the peaceful expression of their views. Torture of detainees is common; last year, the State Department reported at least three deaths in custody of political prisoners.
The military continues to use forced labor on a large scale. Even a November 2002 study by “Collaborative for Development Action” commissioned by the French oil company Total confirmed the use of forced labor just outside the Total pipeline “corridor.” Villagers are compelled to work without pay, often under horrific conditions, on infrastructure and agricultural projects, as porters in army camps, and on the construction of temples. Children as young as seven are forced in many parts of the country to carry army supplies and to work on construction sites. In effect, Burma maintains the crudest form of command economy: When the military wants something built, it simply commands people to build it.
Remarkably, Mr. Chairman, there are apologists for the Burmese government who claim that this practice of forced labor in Burma is simply a cultural tradition (even though Burmese have to be forced at gunpoint to perform it!) A recent report on Burma by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), for example, claims that forced labor in Burma is "crucial for nation building and economic development" and that the infrastructure built by forced labor is "broadly appreciated" in the country. These are preposterous claims. No serious economist, in this century at least, would argue that forced labor is a sound path to development. And ordinary Burmese despise the military for taking them from their homes to do this kind of work, as anyone will tell you who has bothered actually to speak to Burmese who have experienced the practice.
To the extent the NBR report finds any fault with forced labor in Burma, it blames the United States for it, claiming that it is the U.S. failure to provide economic aid to the Burmese government that causes it to conscript its people to work without compensation. (In fact, the Burmese government engaged in this practice in the years when it was receiving outside assistance). Applying the same bizarre logic, the report argues that the "absence of military assistance" to the government in its wars against ethnic minority armies in Burma has "led to" the military's brutal practice of conscripting civilians to serve as porters in areas of armed conflict. Reasonable people can differ about the best approach to Burma, but I would seriously question the judgment of any analysts who associate themselves with such outrageous attempts to rationalize the military government’s crimes.
Perhaps the most horrific of the military’s abuses are committed against civilians living in the country’s ethnic minority areas. In recent years, the military has pursued a strategy of forcibly relocating minority villages in areas where ethnic activists and rebels are active, and in areas targeted for economic development and tourism. In the Shan and Karen states in particular, these relocations clearly amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and a million internally displaced persons. Burmese troops have burned villages, hospitals and schools in ethnic areas, conscripted villagers to perform forced labor, and executed suspected opponents of the regime. Shan human rights organizations have amply documented, and the State Department has confirmed, the systematic rape of women and girls in the Shan State by the Burmese military. Most of the documented rapes were committed by officers in front of their troops; a quarter resulted in death.
Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report on another tragic feature of this campaign of repression: the forced recruitment by the Burmese military of thousands of child soldiers, some as young as eleven. The Burmese military is believed to have a higher percentage of child soldiers than any military in the world – some 70,000 of its 350,000 person force may be children. These children are brutalized during training and forced to commit the worst abuses – including beatings, executions and massacres of civilians.
The “Road Map”
In recent months, the Burmese leadership has raised hopes among some international actors that it is contemplating a transition to a more democratic and humane form of government. In August of last year, a senior military leader, General Khin Nyunt, launched what he called a “road map” for a return to democracy in Burma, which has been welcomed by some international actors. But this “road map” is an extraordinarily vague document. It accords no place to Burma’s political opposition or to the elected representatives of the Burmese people in the transition process. It offers no timetable for progress. It incorporates past declarations of the Burmese military authorities that guarantee a dominant role for the military in Burma’s future. It does not promise freedom for a single political prisoner or any relief for Burmese suffering from the military’s campaigns against ethnic minorities.
The “road map” is a positive development in so far as it shows that the Burmese government does recognize the need to satisfy international concerns about its repressive rule. But that does not mean our concerns should in fact be satisfied when the government’s promises are vague and insufficient. The Burmese government has broken every significant promise of transition to democracy that it has made in the past. The international community should insist on concrete actions, not words.
And we should recognize that even as the Burmese government has been shopping its “road map” to international actors, it has continued its campaign of repression at home. In the last several weeks, for example, the Burmese army has intensified military operations in the Karen and Karenni States along Burma’s border with Thailand. This campaign has been characterized by the abuses to which we have been accustomed: brutal attacks on internally displaced civilians, the forcible relocation of villages, and the conscription of civilians to carry supplies.
Meanwhile, the Burmese government has denied the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, a visa to visit the country.
The government has also continued to persecute Burmese for the peaceful expression of their political views. In perhaps the most shocking case, this month nine Burmese workers were sentenced to death, some of whom were charged with the “crime” of contacting the International Labor Organization. One worker received a death sentence merely for having been found in possession of a report by the ILO on forced labor in Burma along with the business card of an ILO official serving in Rangoon.
This is a profoundly chilling cautionary tale, Mr. Chairman, for anyone contemplating whether international aid agencies can play an expanded role inside Burma. As much as we may want U.N. agencies like the ILO to do work inside Burma on behalf of the Burmese people, this is the reality we have to take into account.
U.S. Policy and Sanctions
What can outsiders do to change this reality, to encourage an end to human rights abuses and to promote meaningful political change in Burma?
I believe that the role of the United States and other nations concerned about democracy in Burma must be a two-fold one, combining both sanctions and diplomacy.
The purpose sanctions serve is to say to the Burmese leadership: "You cannot expect to reconcile yourselves with the international community until you reconcile yourselves with your own people. You cannot make a separate peace with us. Reach a compromise with your opposition first, if you want to enjoy the benefits of trade and investment with the rest of the world." Sanctions give domestic proponents of change in Burma something to bargain with. They give democratic dissidents some degree of leverage in negotiations with the government, because the government knows it has to go through them, and to satisfy some of their basic demands, including the release of political prisoners and relaxing political repression, to convince the world to ease its pressure.
The intense pressure applied by the United States and the European Union also has an important and positive impact on Burma's southeast Asian neighbors. If Burma's partners in ASEAN have made any efforts to promote change inside Burma, it is only because they do not want to have an international pariah in their club. They have been particularly keen on encouraging Burma to present a different face to the world before it takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006.
Second, the United States and its partners should press for a unified international diplomatic effort that offers the Burmese government a way out of its isolation if it embraces reform. That was the purpose of appointing United Nations envoy Ismail Razali to try to mediate a dialogue between the Burmese government and its opposition – to ensure that the Burmese government was hearing from one credible international interlocutor rather than a cacophony of voices each proposing different solutions to Burma’s internal crisis. It is also vital for the United States to engage Burma’s neighbors in ASEAN, to encourage them to deliver a principled and consistent message to Rangoon about the need for change.
The Bush administration has been steadfast in applying sanctions against Burma. It has been less consistent in its diplomatic efforts. Last year, after the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi, ASEAN criticized Burma for the first time, an unprecedented break from its tradition of non-interference in its members’ affairs. But the diplomatic momentum in the region swiftly dissipated. Prime Minister Thaksin of Thailand, who has led his own country away from the democratic path it was on during the 1990’s, has emerged as the leading regional figure on the Burma issue, and he has urged accommodation with Rangoon’s generals. The administration has not sufficiently and consistently challenged Thaksin’s efforts. Nor has it attempt to raise the profile of this issue in the U.N. Security Council, which might have had significant impact in Burma and within ASEAN. We desperately need more energetic U.S. diplomacy on Burma in the coming months.
The fundamental strategy the United States has followed on Burma for the last several years has nevertheless been sound – even if the execution is sometimes lacking. Yet some have called that strategy into question, particularly its emphasis on sanctions. They have made three broad arguments.
The first critique points out that pressure from the United States and other nations has not yet eased repression in Burma, and must therefore be considered a failure. While reasonable people can differ about some aspects of the sanctions debate, I think this is an extraordinarily shallow argument.
We could apply the same logic and argue that the policy of no sanctions against Burma, which existed for decades before the late 1990’s, also produced no progress and was therefore a failure. We might have applied that logic to American policy towards Eastern Europe during the Cold War or South Africa in the 1980s. One can easily imagine saying in, say, 1987, that decades of international pressure (including sanctions) against Poland had not done a thing to move its Communist government to respect human rights, and that therefore we needed to accommodate ourselves to the status quo. And indeed, many people did say precisely that. And they were profoundly wrong.
I also think it is undeniable that pressure from the outside, including sanctions, has made a difference in Burma, even if it has not yet brought about democratic change. Without it, there is no question in my mind that Aung San Suu Kyi and her leading supporters would have been exiled, imprisoned, or killed years ago and her political movement shut down entirely. Indeed, analysts throughout Asia acknowledged that Suu Kyi’s original release from house arrest came about entirely in response to international pressure.
In the same vein, it was only when the International Labor Organization recommended sanctions against Burma that it was allowed to work in the country and engage the government on an end to forced labor. Without that kind of outside pressure from the U.S. and others, the International Committee for the Red Cross would not be in Burma today visiting prisoners. U.N. envoy Razali would never have gotten in the door to begin work on a political settlement. And the Burmese government would never have proposed the “road map” that opponents of sanctions say is so hopeful. In other words, international pressure has kept hope alive in Burma. Without it, there would be no hope.
Of course, the Burmese government must feel pressure from many countries, not just one, before it can be convinced to compromise. But experience shows that multilateral pressure can best be mobilized if the United States is willing to lead (indeed, following U.S. action, the E.U. is now considering stronger measures against Rangoon). That’s why I applaud President Bush for acting swiftly following the attack on Suu Kyi last year to expand the visa ban against Burmese officials and to freeze their assets. It is why I hope the Congress will renew this year the ban on Burmese imports to the United States.
In the absence of significant progress inside Burma, a failure to renew sanctions would send a message to the Burmese government that it has already done enough to satisfy international concerns – that it does not have to go beyond unfulfilled promises. The military would have no incentive to release political prisoners or to end abuses against civilians in the countryside. At best, we would likely see a long, drawn out political process that would be a “transition to democracy” in name alone, with no participation by the political opposition, leading to the formal entrenchment of the military’s role in political life. Burma’s neighbors in ASEAN would breathe a sigh of relief and see no further reason to press the generals in Rangoon to embrace real reform.
A second argument made by critics of sanctions is that they undermine “moderates” within the Burmese military, and strengthen the hand of “hard liners.” I believe this is tremendously naïve.
Virtually every authoritarian government that has faced outside criticism has tried to convince the world that there were “moderates” within its ranks working quietly for change, and that “too much” pressure would hurt their chances. When I was a young Congressional aide in the late 1980s, the dying dictatorships of Eastern Europe would send highly articulate, reasonable sounding officials to talk to members of Congress and their staff, to assure us that they understood the need for change, and to beg us for aid and loans. “If you keep squeezing us, the hard liners will win” was their constant refrain.
It is obviously in the interest of the Burmese government to convey the same message to foreigners who visit Rangoon. But there is no tangible evidence that the so called moderates, like General Khin Nyunt, who engage with foreigners are in fact working to change the policies of their government in any fundamental way or, if they are, that they have made any progress. The strategy seems to be to offer intriguing but ultimately empty commitments to the international community, in the hope that this will be enough to end their government’s isolation. If this is the case, we have no interest in helping the so called “moderates” succeed in this task.
In the meantime, we should not engage in wishful or sentimental thinking about the men who rule Burma. It is frankly silly to suggest, as the NBR report does, that Burma’s generals “are instinctively pro-Western,” or that if only their delicate psyches were not so offended by outside condemnation they might change their behavior. In fact, Burma is ruled by a highly cynical group of people who are accustomed to playing hardball.
A third argument against sanctions is that they make it impossible to provide humanitarian aid to the Burmese people.
Burma is indeed suffering a humanitarian crisis, including an uncontrolled HIV/AIDS epidemic, a deteriorating health care system, and growing malnourishment. There is a clear consensus that it needs help from the outside world to meet basic humanitarian needs. But sanctions do not stand in the way of that. Indeed, U.N. agencies like UNICEF and UNDP along with a number of non-governmental organizations are present in Burma. The United States and European governments have funded them. The only restriction they impose is that no aid can be channeled through the Burmese government.
It is not the international community’s fault that aid does not reach all the needy people of Burma and that it is not “solving” Burma’s problems. The cause of Burma’s humanitarian emergency is not a lack of aid. It is a series of government policies that stunt development and impede the relief of suffering. For example:
- Misallocation of Resources: The WHO suggests that least developed countries put 5-8% of GDP into health at a minimum. In Burma, health expenditures fell from less than 0.38% of GDP in 1994 to 0.17% in 2000. Already minimal government spending on education has also declined in the last decade. Meanwhile, military spending has skyrocketed (including for a separate system of health care for leadership and military officers’ families). The government spends 222% more on the military than on health and education combined.
- Suppression of Civil Society: Because of draconian laws that forbid Burmese from forming independent organizations or even from holding meetings of more than five people, private citizens and communities in Burma cannot organize self-help efforts of their own to compensate for the government’s inaction. The absence of press freedom prevents Burmese from holding accountable government agencies that fail to respond to humanitarian needs.
- Disastrous Agricultural Policies: The government forces farmers to plant specific crops at specific times, and to sell them to the state at below-market rates – a policy that has impoverished the rural population and undermined food security.
- Politicization of Humanitarian Aid: The SPDC has sought to channel foreign humanitarian assistance through government-affiliated organizations such as the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) and the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (directed by the wife of SPDC leader Gen. Khin Nyunt). These groups are a political arm of the state (the USDA, for example, has organized thugs to attack opposition activists). They are profoundly mistrusted by ordinary Burmese, a particular problem when they are used to deal with sensitive issues like AIDS and drug addiction.
- Refusal to Meet International Standards: When donors have tried to channel aid to competent government agencies in Burma, the SPDC has refused to meet their basic requirements. In 2002, the US Centers for Disease Control offered to help Burma’s Ministry of Health set up an AIDS surveillance system. But the SPDC has not agreed to the CDC standard that AIDS testing be voluntary, that results be confidential, and that testing be coupled with counseling and education. Testing in Burma is still not confidential; as a result, few have agreed to be tested.
- Fueling the Humanitarian Crisis: Burma’s brutal counterinsurgency policies have displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, cutting them off from vital services and making them vulnerable to malaria and other infectious disease. Forced displacement is a major factor in pushing Burmese women into the sex trade, which helps fuel the AIDS epidemic – as does sexual violence by Burmese soldiers, and military tolerance of heroin trafficking. Humanitarian agencies are forbidden access to areas of conflict where the greatest needs exist.
The United States and other donors should continue to provide aid through U.N. agencies and NGO’s working in Burma. Their work can save lives and create small pockets of hope inside Burma. But we should have no illusions: Showering Burma with aid will not end its humanitarian crisis. For that to happen, donors will need a partner in the Burmese government that is committed to diminishing human suffering rather than adding to it. Until then, providing assistance to Burma will be as frustrating as providing first aid to a victim of child abuse. It may be possible to ease, temporarily, the symptoms of violence and neglect. But the only real solution is to address the underlying causes.
Whatever the issue at hand, Mr. Chairman, I believe the best approach for dealing with the Burmese government is to be steady and determined. If we give something for nothing, we will get nothing. If we are not willing to stick with a consistent strategy for more than a few months or years, the generals will sense the international community’s weakness and indecision and they will wait us out.
And we should take our lead from the Burmese people themselves.
This week, a very brave young man in Burma named Min Ko Naing marked his 15th year in prison. He was jailed for leading the peaceful student protests in 1988 that launched Burma’s democracy movement. He has been brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for most of this time. He could have been released long ago, had he simply signed a statement promising not to work for democracy and to distance himself from Burma’s democratic opposition. But he has refused to cut that deal.
And so, Mr. Chairman, should we. We should not accommodate ourselves to the status quo in Burma. We should keep working to change it.