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It's Time to Turn the Tables On Burma's Thugs

It's Time to Turn the Tables On Burma's Thugs

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Op-Ed
Wall Street Journal
June 12, 2003

United Nations Special Envoy Razali Ismail has just visited Burma and was able to bring us news that Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of a peaceful democratic party known as the National League for Democracy, is well and unharmed. The thoughts and prayers of free people everywhere have been with her these past two weeks. Our fears for her current state of health are now somewhat lessened.

On May 30, her motorcade was attacked by thugs, and then the thugs who run the Burmese government placed her under "protective custody." We can take comfort in the fact that she is well. Unfortunately, the larger process that Ambassador Razali and Aung San Suu Kyi have been pursuing -- to restore democracy in Burma -- is failing despite their good will and sincere efforts. It is time to reassess our policy toward a military dictatorship that has repeatedly attacked democracy and jailed its heroes.

There is little doubt on the facts. Aung San Suu Kyi's party won an election in 1990 and since then has been denied its place in Burmese politics. Her party has continued to pursue a peaceful path, despite personal hardships and lengthy periods of house arrest or imprisonment for her and her followers. Hundreds of her supporters remain in prison, despite some initial releases and promises by the junta to release more. The party's offices have been closed and their supporters persecuted. Ambassador Razali has pursued every possible opening and worked earnestly to help Burma make a peaceful transition to democracy. Despite initial statements last year, the junta -- which shamelessly calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- has now refused his efforts and betrayed its own promises.

At the end of last month, this rejection manifested itself in violence. After the May 30 attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's convoy, we sent U.S. Embassy officers to the scene to gather information. They reported back that the attack was planned in advance. A series of trucks followed her convoy to a remote location, blocked it and then unloaded thugs to swarm with fury over the cars of democracy supporters. The attackers were brutal and organized; the victims were peaceful and defenseless. The explanation by the Burmese military junta of what happened doesn't hold water. The SPDC has not made a credible report of how many people were killed and injured. It was clear to our embassy officers that the members of the junta were responsible for directing and producing this staged riot.

We have called for a full accounting of what happened that day. We have called for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released from confinement of any kind. We have called for the release of the other leaders of the National League for Democracy who were jailed by the SPDC before and after the attack. We have called for the offices of the National League for Democracy to be allowed to reopen. We are in touch with other governments who are concerned about the fate of democracy's leader and the fate of democracy in Burma to encourage them, too, to pressure the SPDC.

The Bush administration agrees with members of Congress, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has been a leading advocate of democracy in Burma, that the time has come to turn up the pressure on the SPDC.

Here's what we've done so far. The State Department has already extended our visa restrictions to include all officials of an organization related to the junta -- the Union Solidarity and Development Association -- and the managers of state-run enterprises so that they and their families can be banned as well.

The United States already uses our voice and our vote against loans to Burma from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. The State Department reports honestly and frankly on the crimes of the SPDC in our reports on Human Rights, Trafficking in Persons, Drugs, and International Religious Freedom. In all these areas, the junta gets a failing grade. We also speak out frequently and strongly in favor of the National League for Democracy, and against the SPDC. I will press the case in Cambodia next week when I meet with the leaders of Southeast Asia, despite their traditional reticence to confront a member and neighbor of their association, known as Asean.

Mr. McConnell has introduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act in the Senate; Reps. Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos have introduced a similar bill in the House. We support the goals and intent of the bills and are working with the sponsors on an appropriate set of new steps. Those who follow this issue will know that our support for legislation is in fact a change in the position of this administration and previous ones as well. Simply put, the attack on Ms. Suu Kyi's convoy and the utter failure of the junta to accept efforts at peaceful change cannot be the last word on the matter. The junta that oppresses democracy inside Burma must find that its actions will not be allowed to stand.

There are a number of measures that should now be taken, many of them in the proposed legislation. It's time to freeze the financial assets of the SPDC. It's time to ban remittances to Burma so that the SPDC cannot benefit from the foreign exchange. With legislation, we can, and should, place restrictions on travel-related transactions that benefit the SPDC and its supporters. We also should further limit commerce with Burma that enriches the junta's generals. Of course, we would need to ensure consistency with our World Trade Organization and other international obligations. Any legislation will need to be carefully crafted to take into account our WTO obligations and the president's need for waiver authority, but we should act now.

By attacking Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, the Burmese junta has finally and definitively rejected the efforts of the outside world to bring Burma back into the international community. Indeed, their refusal of the work of Ambassador Razali and of the rights of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters could not be clearer. Our response must be equally clear if the thugs who now rule Burma are to understand that their failure to restore democracy will only bring more and more pressure against them and their supporters.

ENDS

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