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Burma: A Way Forward - Eric John Speech

Burma: A Way Forward

Eric John, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Remarks at Harvard University, Asia Center
Cambridge, Massachusetts
February 17, 2006

To fully understand our Burma policy today, it is important to first step back about 60 years and see what Burma once was. Following World War II and Rangoon's subsequent fight for independence from Britain, Burma was poised to play a significant and positive role in the region and the world. It enjoyed some of the highest rates of enrollment in primary and secondary schools in Asia, and boasted a well-educated, highly-regarded civil service. It had a functioning economy and was for some time the world's largest rice exporter. It had an elected government and was a society that produced a Secretary General of the United Nations.

Sadly, this scenario is almost unimaginable today. In stark contrast, the current regime has taken the country in a tragically different direction, causing Burma's more than 50 million people to suffer needlessly. This downward course is increasingly worrying not only to Burma's people, but to the world. Burma's neighbors have particular reason to be concerned because many of the country's growing problems are spreading beyond its borders. The military regime's draconian policies force the Burmese people to live in a state of perpetual fear, and have precipitated a steady economic and social decline, as evidenced by rising rates of inflation, infant mortality and malnutrition, and a worrisome increase in HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. They have led to a steady outflow of refugees and illicit narcotics, and thwarted peace among Burma's ethnic minority populations, who face forced relocation, forced labor, and other severe human rights abuses.

The regime also continues to promote a sham political process from which the opposition is barred -- one that prohibits free and open debate and includes only delegates hand-picked by the military. Over 1,100 people are still detained for peacefully expressing their political views, and the freedoms of press, assembly, religion and movement are greatly restricted. Forced labor, rape, torture, conscription of child soldiers, and trafficking in persons are all too prevalent.

Mismanagement of the economy also has taken its toll. Although reliable economic statistics are not available, most experts believe Burma's economy remained stagnant in 2005, while inflation rose, perhaps as much as 50%. The average household spends 70% of its income on food, and anecdotal evidence indicates that the middle class is dipping into its limited reserves to survive.

The regime's failure to address HIV/AIDS, Avian Influenza and other health problems is also troubling. According to UN statistics and reports by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, two% of pregnant women are HIV positive, 50% of children drop out of school after five years, one-third of Burma's children are malnourished, and 600,000 new cases of malaria and 97,000 cases of TB are documented annually.

How has the regime responded to these problems, which the UN has called an emerging humanitarian crisis and a threat to human security? By placing significant restrictions on NGOs and UN agencies providing much-needed humanitarian assistance. Just last year, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria terminated its Burma program citing lack of access to project sites and restrictions on its procurement of medical supplies. Meanwhile, according to its own most recent budget, the regime spends $1.10 per citizen on education and 40¢ on healthcare, compared to $400 on each soldier.

The flows of narcotics and cross-border migration are as worrisome as the spread of infectious diseases. There are over 140,000 refugees in Thailand; Malaysia and Bangladesh host 40,000 refugees among them; and there are an estimated 50,000 refugees in India. There are also an estimated 500,000 internally-displaced persons in the country. Burma remains the world's second largest producer of opium, and production of amphetamine-type stimulants continues to rise. These drugs are trafficked to China, Thailand, and other countries in the region. This is an overwhelming indictment of the regime, and calls out for our involvement, both for moral and strategic reasons; Burma should be a leader in Southeast Asia. Its industrious citizens should be an engine of economic growth and democratic freedom. The policy question, though, is "how do we get there?"

The international community has reached out repeatedly to help Burma address its numerous problems. The United Nations has adopted 28 resolutions calling for the regime to engage the opposition in real dialogue and for the release of political prisoners, the UN Secretary General designated a Special Envoy, ASEAN has offered help, but the regime has rejected all of these efforts.

How do we help bring about a transition from the isolationist Burma of today to a free and democratic country integrated into Southeast Asia and the international community? We have developed a multi-pronged approach predicated on maximizing international pressure on the regime to reform. We also support programs that promote democratic values, and provide humanitarian assistance.

The United States will continue to provide strong support to Burma's democratic opposition. This support includes public statements by senior Administration officials, including Secretary Rice and President Bush. We will continue to work with our partners, both in Europe and Asia, to strengthen this all-important component of our policy.

Diplomatically, we have shifted the international community's focus away from the debate over sanctions versus engagement, toward a realization that the status quo in Burma can only lead to instability there and in the region. We have engaged in an intensive diplomatic campaign to persuade governments such as India, China, Japan, and ASEAN members, that it is not in anyone's interest to stand idly by and watch Burma's current rulers take the country further downhill, as Burma's problems spill over its borders and also act as a drag on ASEAN and the entire region. We have made the same argument in New York at the United Nations.

Recognizing that different governments have varying approaches to the regime, we are making the point -- with some success -- that all of us have an interest in helping reverse the current negative trend in Burma, and that the only way to reverse it is through political change.

Thus, we are working internationally to reach a point at which virtually all governments, in their interactions with Burmese authorities, call on the regime to take some fundamental steps to begin moving the country in a healthier direction. These steps include: releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners; initiating a credible, inclusive political process; granting access for UN representatives; and lifting restrictions on UN agencies and NGOs providing humanitarian assistance.

Initiating an inclusive political process is key; without this, it is hard to see how Burma will successfully address its problems. Let me stress here that when we talk about a process, we do not have our own blueprint for Burma's political future. All we are doing is calling on the regime to begin a political process that allows the people of Burma to determine their political future. In that context, we note and welcome recent proposals by the opposition outlining possible ways to move ahead politically. For example, the National League for Democracy just proposed an arrangement whereby the military regime would recognize the results of the 1990 legislative elections, but would be able to continue running the country for an interim period until new elections could be held. This proposal sends a clear message that the democratic opposition is willing to work with the regime to ensure an orderly political transition to a more representative government while enhancing stability. We strongly urge the Burmese regime to open a dialogue with the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups, in which this and other ideas for a democratic transition could be discussed.

Increasingly, other governments, along with parliamentarians and the media, understand that the situation in Burma must change, and they are starting to speak out. For example, ASEAN specifically called in its December statement for the release of political prisoners and expedited democratization. The statement also conveyed ASEAN's decision to send Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid to Burma as an ASEAN envoy. We are confident that, if he is able to visit, he will deliver a strong message reaffirming ASEAN's position. Senior officials from Japan, Korea, India, and Australia have also called on the regime to move forward, as have several European officials. Chinese officials, while yet to speak out publicly about the situation in Burma, have privately noted their concerns, and we are engaged in an active dialogue with them.

The United States will continue to work with the European Union, Asian governments, and others in the international community to deliver this message to Burma's leaders, emphasizing that the choice is not between the regime's current approach and instability, but between the inevitable continuing decline resulting from a perpetuation of the political status quo, and the hope for progress through a transition to a better, more representative government. We will also continue to look for ways to keep Burma on the UN agenda. Last December's UN Security Council briefing was an important first step that highlighted the gravity of the situation there. Secretary General Annan participated in the briefing and, in his comments to the press afterwards said that the Security Council could "use its contacts with countries with influence to bring pressure to bear and encourage the government to accelerate the national political process, and ensure that it is inclusive and all political parties and personalities are able to participate freely and willingly, including Aung San Suu Kyi." We believe the situation warrants continued UN Security Council attention and discussion, and we are considering next steps in that body.

Another key component of this pressure is sanctions. Some in the international community have argued that, because the Burmese regime has not yet changed its approach, our sanctions policy has failed and we should lift sanctions. I strongly disagree. Our sanctions continue to play a critically important role, reminding the regime -- and everyone else concerned with Burma -- that the regime's behavior is unacceptable, and that regime leaders will remain isolated as long as they continue this behavior. They also provide important moral support for the democratic opposition, the vast majority of whom favor tough international sanctions; and they ensure that American companies will not help fund the luxurious lifestyles of a rich few.

On the democracy promotion and humanitarian fronts, we continue to work with organizations both inside Burma and along its borders. Since Fiscal Year 2000, the National Endowment for Democracy has received over $16 million from the State Department to focus on democracy and human rights activities, including capacity building for NGOs and exile groups, and the collection of information on human rights. We also have an active public outreach program through our American Center in Rangoon, which we hope to expand, that enables us to engage diverse audiences inside Burma and provide a window to the outside world.

Separately, we continue to provide humanitarian assistance to Burmese both in Thailand and inside Burma, despite accusations by critics of U.S. policy who allege that our sanctions prevent such efforts. Our humanitarian assistance includes support for efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and assistance to refugees, migrants and IDPs. In fiscal year 2005, we provided over $10 million, primarily for assistance to Burmese living in Thailand, both inside and outside refugee camps. We also provided $2 million of these funds to organizations inside Burma to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Over all, in fiscal year 2005, the State Department provided over $14 million to address key humanitarian and democracy concerns. All of these funds are distributed to organizations independent of the Burmese regime.

Bringing about the kind of positive change we all seek in Burma is a long-term endeavor. We have a strategy to get there, and it is paying off: The Administration is engaged at the highest levels; key countries in the region have begun to speak out about the need for reform; and international pressure on the regime to change its misguided, irrational policies is mounting. The road ahead is not short, but by continuing our intense efforts, we can effectively promote freedom, prosperity, and security for Burma's long-suffering population. As President Bush said, the Burmese people "want their liberty -- and one day, they will have it."

Released on February 23, 2006


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