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Dobriansky: Toward a Free and Democratic Burma

Toward a Free and Democratic Burma

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks at Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement With National
Endowment for Democracy and Church World Service
Washington, DC
October 26, 2005

Thank you for that introduction, Richard. I am honored to be here at this conference organized by the Brookings Institution, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Church World Service. I am pleased to share with you the Bush Administration's hope and expectation that Burma will one day be free and democratic. Today, the current state of affairs in that country falls significantly short of international standards. Indeed, we have just passed the point that marks ten full years of house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi a Nobel Laureate who remains unlawfully detained. However, while it is important to describe and condemn the human rights abuses in Burma, we also need to acknowledge that the brave Burmese people aspire to and dream of a better life. As Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed "Justice is a dream. But it is a dream we are determined to realize." We are here today to share what unites us all the dream and determination to see a free and democratic Burma.

Unfortunately, we must begin discussions about Burma by reminding the world that in today's Burma, human rights are violated daily. This year, Freedom House ranked Burma as one of the world's most repressive regimes and worst human rights abusers. Just last week, Reporters without Borders ranked Burma in the worst 10 countries for crippling freedom of the press.

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The ruling junta's list of human rights abuses is well-known to the activists in this room. The government is not bound by any constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights. Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and association remain greatly restricted. The Burmese military's abuses are widespread. These include rape, torture, execution, and forced relocation. The unacceptable practices of forced labor, trafficking in persons, use of child soldiers, and religious discrimination are all too commonplace in Burma.

And we are all aware, on June 19, Aung San Suu Kyi spent yet another birthday her 60th under house arrest, isolated from her friends, family, and the Burmese people.

She continues to be a beacon of hope for those who yearn for freedom in Burma. Her message of non-violence and her courageous support for the establishment of democracy in the face of the junta's repression inspire people not only in Burma, but also around the world.

Now, Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy Vice Chairman U Tin Oo, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy leader Hkun Htun Oo, and over 1,000 jailed political prisoners all share the same fate. In fact, the arrests of pro-democracy activists have continued unabated. Political activists have died in jail, and many live in miserable conditions with no hope of a fair trial.

Moreover, the human rights problems in Burma are not only harming its citizens but are causing regional instabilities and problems. This point was eloquently made in a report just released by former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, that is aptly entitled "Threat to the Peace." The two men, both of whom are world-renowned for their courage and dedication to the cause of democracy and human rights throughout the world, not only spotlight Burma's egregious human rights violations, but also conclude that "Burma's troubles are causing serious and possibly permanent problems that go well beyond human rights violations" and are now "a problem for the region and international community." When Havel and Tutu speak, the world must listen and take heed.

As President Havel and Archbishop Tutu rightly noted, the Burmese Government's cruel policies have impacted very harshly on the poor people of Burma. Human Rights Watch estimates that since the 1960s, the regime has created over 1 million internally displaced people. There are 146,000 recognized refugees from Burma in Thailand, 20,000 in Bangladesh, and 12,500 in Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled Burma but have not sought refugee status. Approximately 100-200 Burmese a month cross into Thailand. This is the tragic and mounting human toll of the government's actions.

These factors combine to create a population in Burma that is struggling just to stay alive, and even that is not guaranteed if the current trends continue. If unaddressed, extreme poverty, rising malnutrition rates, lack of access to education, rampant disease and no corresponding medical care, combined with the deteriorating human rights and political situation portend a severe crisis one that would have serious implications for regional stability.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria reported in August that the situation related to these three diseases in Burma is "extremely precarious." Burma has among the highest TB rates worldwide, with 97,000 new cases detected each year. Malaria is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Burma, and is the biggest cause of death of children under the age of five. The Global Fund stated that "these diseases could soon reach catastrophic proportions, affecting the entire region." However, due to the junta's imposition of restrictions on the work of humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies, the Global Fund was forced to terminate its efforts in Burma. The Fund concluded that its "grants cannot be implemented in a way that ensures effective program implementation."

Presented with this egregious record, we continue to speak out and act against the regime's abuses and in support of Burma's democratic opposition. The United States works with like-minded countries to maintain maximum international pressure on the Burmese regime through UN resolutions, robust bilateral and multilateral sanctions, public diplomacy, and democracy and human rights programs. At the most recent session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the United States stood with other allies and partners to pass a resolution by consensus on Burma.

I encourage all of you to read that document, which so clearly outlines a joint international position on Burma's "ongoing systematic violation of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, of the people of Myanmar, in particular discrimination and violations suffered by persons belonging to ethnic minorities, women and children, especially in non? ceasefire areas." It goes on to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi, her democratic party, the military's abuses, trafficking in persons and denial of basic freedoms. It does not mince words in painting a realistic picture of what is happening inside this country.

We have raised our concerns with Security Council members over the deteriorating human rights and political situation in Burma. We are particularly concerned that Special Envoy Ambassador Razali Ismail and Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Paulo Sergio Pinheiro have not been allowed back into Burma since 2004 and 2003 respectively to be able to monitor and provide first-hand reports on the situation there. In the wake of the report released by UN Secretary General Annan, as well as those released by Special Rapporteur Pinheiro and Nobel Laureates Havel and Tutu, it is appropriate for the Security Council to discuss the situation in Burma.

Through 27 UN resolutions on Burma, the international community has stood united in its call for change in Burma. All have fallen on deaf ears. If Burma wishes to reverse its growing isolation, it must stop defying these resolutions and demands from the international community that universally-recognized human rights be respected.

On December 23, 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus its annual resolution on the situation of human rights in Burma, and we look forward to another strong resolution this year. The U.S. delegation is working to ensure that the resolution accurately reflects the serious human rights situation in Burma.

We also urge nations in the region to take a more active role in solving the problems that such a repressive government causes for regional organizations like ASEAN. We were pleased to see that Burma did not take the chair of ASEAN. We will continue to engage ASEAN on the need for the protection of human rights and freedom in Burma.

We support governmental and NGO programs that promote democratic values, human rights, religious freedom, the rule of law, and good governance. The regime in Burma is limiting each of these goals, so we are funding NGOs whose work focuses on democracy promotion and capacity-building activities for Burmese exile groups, and the collection and dissemination of information on democracy and human rights. We also support journalist training, media development and several scholarship programs to prepare Burmese youth for post-transition leadership roles. We are responding to Aung San Suu Kyi's call when she said "Please use your liberty to promote ours." We know that those of us born on the right side of freedom's divide, as Secretary of State Rice has said many times, have a unique responsibility to help those who are fighting for the very rights we enjoy daily.

While the Executive Branch has pursued a pro-freedom and human rights approach vis-à-vis Burma, Congress has also been a important and key player. In this regard, it passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act in July 2003, and extended the Act in 2004 and 2005. The law imposed additional U.S. sanctions against the Burmese government, including a ban on the import of Burmese products, a prohibition on the exportation of financial services to Burma by U.S. persons, a targeted asset freeze, and visa restrictions against the Government of Burma and the Union Solidarity Development Association or their successor entities.

These sanctions, which were passed by an overwhelming margin in both the House and Senate, are actively being implemented by the Bush Administration. They will not be lifted until the junta satisfies the conditions that are specified in the Act, including release of political prisoners, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and placing Burma on the path toward democracy. There will be no wavering of our resolve until these reforms are achieved. As President Bush said on the occasion of Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday this last June, "Only a return to democracy and reintegration with the international community can bring the freedom and prosperity that the people of Burma deserve. The United States looks forward to the time when Burma is democratic and free."

Our sanctions send a strong message: the United States expects Burma's regime to take meaningful steps toward genuine national reconciliation and the establishment of democracy. Such pressure also serves as a strong symbol of support for the members of the democratic opposition, as they continue their struggle inside the country.

Our own Human Rights Report annually outlines the dire situation in Burma, and as we stated on Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday, we urge the international community to work together to end the repression of this brutal regime.

We have repeatedly called upon Burma's military rulers to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and to include Burma's democratic opposition and ethnic minorities in a meaningful dialogue that leads to genuine national reconciliation and the establishment of democracy.

These are easily achievable steps that most in the international community agree the junta should take. They will not lead to the establishment of democracy overnight, but we want to see a credible and transparent political process underway that allows all sectors of society to freely express their views.

The bravery and resilience of Burma's democracy movement is not only inspiring, but is also the seed of hope for the country. As we've seen across the world in places like Ukraine, Iraq, Indonesia and elsewhere people want to be free and they will fight for that freedom. And, as President Bush has said, we will stand with them.

The people of Burma should know that they have our unwavering support in their quest for liberty. We look forward to the day when a democratically elected government rules Burma and actively participates in the Community of Democracies.

Released on October 31, 2005


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