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Burma: Update and Next Steps - Eric G. John

Burma: Update and Next Steps

Eric G. John, Deputy Assistant Secretary, East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific
Washington, DC
March 29, 2006

Madam Chairman, members of the Subcommittee,

Thank you for the invitation to come before the subcommittee today to update you on the situation in Burma and the Administration's strategy for effecting meaningful change in that tragic country.

Before I delve into the substance of our policy toward Burma, I would like to take a moment to relate a recent event that highlights, in a very human and tragic way, the oppression and violence that the people of Burma face on a daily basis. Less than two weeks ago, several security officials accosted a former political prisoner named Thet Naing Oo, accusing him of public indecency for relieving himself near a Rangoon teahouse. In most countries, urinating in public might warrant a citation or a warning. Not in Burma. The security officials provoked a confrontation with Thet Naing Oo, and in the end, beat him to death, in full view of numerous horrified onlookers.

Incidents such as this hang over the heads of all Burmese people, weighing them down with a palpable sense of fear and oppression. They remind us of the brutality of the regime, and of the need for the international community to do all it can to bring about change.

Burma remains a high priority for the President and Secretary Rice, and, as I know, for many members of Congress as well. We are working intensively and closely with like-minded partners and others in Asia, and with the UN in New York, to coordinate and maximize diplomatic pressure on the Burmese regime to initiate genuine political reforms. While there have been signs of some progress in recent months among our international partners -- and I will cover that later in my testimony -- the road to ultimately bringing to Burma and its people the freedom, peace and democracy they so richly deserve remains long and uncertain. However, it is a path the United States and others will continue to traverse no matter what the obstacles.

To fully understand and appreciate the tragedy that Burma has become, we should look back 50 or 60 years, when that country seemed poised to play a significant and positive role in the region and the world. Burma 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 was rich with natural resources, and was one of the world's leading rice exporters.

Sadly, Burma's leaders did not capitalize on these assets and the country's potential to be a regional leader. Instead, a series of generals have, for over 40 years, implemented irrational and repressive policies that have caused the needless suffering of Burma's more than 50 million people. As Secretary Rice recently said in Jakarta, "A country that was once the jewel of Southeast Asia is now out of step with the entire modern experience of its region. A once thriving economy has collapsed. Universities that once attracted the best Asian minds are locked shut. The Burmese regime is now literally retreating into the depths of the country, closing its people off from the world and robbing them of their future."

The latest chapter in Burma's increasingly depressing story is the advent of Avian Influenza. On March 12, Burma reported an AI outbreak in poultry near Mandalay to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and requested assistance from the international community. In response to its "immediate need" request, we made available to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) up to 2,000 units of protective clothing and disinfectant with sprayers for use in Mandalay to contain the outbreak. Others in the international community are responding as well, albeit not as rapidly. A WHO/FAO team was sent in to investigate. Sadly, more than 56 commercial farms have since been infected, and the regime has had to suspend the sale of ducks, chickens and quails in affected areas.

Although the regime cannot be blamed for the AI outbreak itself, its failure to devote an adequate share of budget resources to the health sector, along with its repressive policies -- including unnecessary restrictions on UN agencies, NGOs and other health-related organizations within the country -- greatly increase the risk of this and other outbreaks spreading, both within Burma and to neighboring countries.

On a much broader scale, the regime's policies and corrupt practices have contributed to a host of other ills, severely hurting the economy and exacerbating the deterioration of social conditions. They have led to a steady outflow of refugees and illicit narcotics, thwarted peace among Burma's ethnic minority populations, and forced the Burmese people to live in a state of perpetual fear. This downward spiral is increasingly worrying not only to Burma's people, but to the region and the world.

On the political front, the regime 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 Burmese are still detained for peacefully expressing their political views. Freedom of press, assembly, religion and movement continue to be greatly restricted. Forced labor, rape, torture, and conscription of child soldiers remain prevalent as tools of the regime, particularly in ethnic minority areas.

Ironically, as the suffering of the Burmese people worsens, the regime continues to insulate and isolate itself from the harsh realities of life in Burma -- for which it is responsible -- and from the international community as well. There is no example more indicative of this trend than the regime's bizarre decision last year, without notice to its people or the world, to move the capital to a heretofore undeveloped town in the hinterland some 200 miles north of Rangoon. Of course, governments have the right to move their capitals, but the way in which the regime made the move is both troubling and emblematic of the character of the quixotic regime. It did not notify the Burmese people, let alone its ASEAN partners or other foreign governments or embassies, and it forced civil servants to leave their families behind indefinitely to make the move.

Madam Chairman, in such a dynamic region as Southeast Asia, which is enjoying strong economic growth, increased freedom and democracy, and an enhanced role in global affairs -- Burma stands out as a glaring exception. The international community has reached out repeatedly to help Burma get back on its feet, but the regime has rejected all of these efforts.

So how do we bring about a transition from the repressive, isolationist Burma of today to a free and democratic country -- one that is integrated into the global community and poses no risk to the stability of the Southeast Asia region? Although there are no easy solutions here, we have developed a bilateral and multilateral strategy predicated on maximizing international pressure on the regime to initiate credible reforms. This multi-pronged approach includes diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and statements of public support for those struggling for freedom and democracy in Burma. We also continue to use funds appropriated by Congress to support democratic ideals through programs that promote democratic values, human rights, the rule of law, and good governance.

Perhaps the most important component of our strategy is our intensified diplomatic efforts focused on building international pressure on the junta to reform. Over the past several months, we have actively engaged with like-minded partners in Europe and key countries in the Asia region, including Japan, ASEAN members, China, India and Australia, to develop support for a common message to the regime on the need for launching a truly inclusive and credible political process leading to a democratic transition. We have stressed that the first steps would have to be the release of political prisoners, including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the regime's engagement in a genuine political dialogue with the opposition and representatives of Burma's ethnic minorities.

It is our sense that elements of our message are getting through to the regime. We strongly supported the firm public stance taken by ASEAN back in December, and welcomed Malaysian Foreign Minister Hamid's visit to Rangoon last week. At their Trilateral Strategic Dialogue on March 18, Secretary Rice, along with Japanese Foreign Minister Aso and Australian Foreign Minister Downer, underscored the need for genuine progress in democratization in Burma, including the release of political prisoners. Indonesian President Yudhoyono's visit to Burma in March provided another opportunity to press the regime. Following the visit, senior Indonesian officials confirmed that President Yudhoyono intends to use his influence -- and Indonesia's example -- to press the Burmese regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and pursue a democratic transition. We will continue to work with New Delhi, at the highest levels, on promoting a democratic transition in Burma. We believe India should press the regime to take meaningful steps such as releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, rather than appearing publicly to accept the status quo.

Multilaterally, we continue to look for ways to keep Burma on the UN agenda. We believe the Security Council has a critical role to play in promoting positive change there, and we have been actively exploring ways to build UNSC consensus on the need for further discussions and possible Council action in follow-up to the December 16 landmark Council briefing on Burma. In our internal discussions on next steps, we have been considering factors such as the results of the just-completed visit to Burma of FM Hamid and other events.

We also continue to advocate discussion of Burma in other UN bodies, such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Third Committee. Last year, the United States co-sponsored the European Union's annual Burma human rights resolution at the United Nations General Assembly, which called for "a genuinely inclusive" political process through the "unhindered participation of all political parties and representatives of ethnic nationalities," as well as the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners. Separately, we are supporting the International Labor Organization's request to place Burma on the 2006 ECOSOC agenda.

We will continue to encourage UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to remain engaged in Burma, and to work with the UN Secretariat to identify a successor for the Secretary General's former Special Envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, who, along with the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, has not been permitted by the regime to visit Burma for the past two years. We will also strive to strengthen the Special Envoy's mandate to include coordination with other governments.

Another component of our strategy is sanctions. Let me state clearly for the record, Madam Chairman, that the Administration fully supports the renewal of the import ban contained in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. Failure to renew it, absent meaningful reforms by the regime, would send the wrong political message. Our sanctions continue to play a critically important role, reminding the regime -- and everyone else concerned with Burma -- that the junta's behavior is unacceptable, and that its leaders will remain isolated as long as they continue this behavior. These measures 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 select few.

Our strategy also provides public support to Burma's democratic opposition. The United States has spoken out for years against the regime's repression of the Burmese people and its imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Hkun Htun Oo and other courageous advocates for democracy. We have encouraged others to do so as well. Just last week, we highlighted the horrific March 17 fatal public beating of Thet Naing Oo, calling on the regime to renounce the use of violence and engage "all elements of Burmese political life in a meaningful dialogue that empowers the [Burmese] people to determine their own future."

Partners and other key players have also been speaking out. On February 28, the European Union issued a statement calling for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners and for a genuine dialogue between the regime, the National League for Democracy, and ethnic minority representatives. The statement also expresses the EU's support for national reconciliation and respect for human rights. Just last month, at the time of the Burmese Prime Minister's visit to China, the Chinese government, for the first time, publicly called on the regime to achieve "national reconciliation," a noticeable ratcheting up of pressure on Burma by Beijing. Indonesian President Yudhoyono highlighted the challenges Burma poses to regional stability ahead of his recent visit to Rangoon.

While we press forward on all fronts for a transition to democracy through this strategy I have outlined, we are not ignoring the humanitarian needs of the Burmese people created by the failure of the regime to address health, education, and other pressing problems. We continue to provide humanitarian assistance to Burmese both in Thailand and inside Burma, in ways that do not bolster or otherwise benefit the regime. 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. This includes $2 million provided 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.

Madam Chairman, because of the regime's self-imposed isolation and apparent imperviousness to outside pressure, it will take an extraordinary concerted and coordinated effort by the international community -- the U.S., the countries of Southeast Asia, China, Japan, India, South Korea, the European Union, the UN, and many others -- to persuade Burma's rulers to begin and sustain a process of credible and full national reconciliation that the country so desperately needs. While we still are not all on the same page, we are much closer than we were: 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 policies is slowly mounting. Burma's road to democracy is neither short nor straight, but by pressing on with our intense efforts, we believe we can effectively shorten the time it will take to achieve the freedom, prosperity, and security for which Burma and its people so desperately yearn and richly deserve. The brutal killing just days ago of Thet Naing Oo reminds us all of how high the stakes are.

Released on March 30, 2006


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