Burma's Political Prisoner Issue Pivotal to US Policy, Says Congress
By Lalit K Jha 25 October 2012
WASHINGTON—Observing that no single issue may play a more pivotal role in Burma’s possible transition to a free and democratic country than the release of its political prisoners, a US Congressional report has said progress in this regard is likely to figure in any Congressional consideration of US policy on Burma.
“The status of Burma’s political prisoners is likely to figure prominently in any Congressional consideration of US policy in Burma. Congress may choose to examine the political prisoner issue in Burma either separately or as part of a broader review of US policy towards Burma,” the report said.
“Congress may also consider taking up legislation—on its own or in response to a request from the Obama administration—to amend, modify, or remove some of the existing sanctions on Burma,” the bipartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) said.
According to the 12-page report prepared by the CRS for US lawmakers, the US State Department is actively discussing the political prisoner issue—including the definition of political prisoners—with the Burmese government, opposition political parties, and representatives of some ethnic groups. In these discussions, US officials emphasize the importance of the release of all political prisoners for the removal of US sanctions on Burma, it said.
“No single issue may play a more pivotal role in Burma’s possible transition to a free and democratic country than the release of its political prisoners,” the CRS report said, adding that the status of Burma’s political prisoners is a critical issue for possible changes in US policy.
Removal of many of the US sanctions on Burma is contingent on certain conditions, including the release of all political prisoners, the report said, noting that achieving a common understanding of Burma’s political prisoner problem is critical for that country’s future political and economic development.
“US economic sanctions that may have limited Burma’s economic performance will remain in place until all political prisoners have been freed. Fully free and fair elections cannot be held in Burma without the participation of political parties who await the release from custody of their members,” it said.
Important ethnic groups are unlikely to discuss terms for national reconciliation until their leaders are freed from jail, said the report authored by Michael F. Martin, who specializes on Asian Affairs.
“At present, there is no consensus on how many political prisoners there are in Burma. Estimates vary from a couple of hundred to over 700 political detainees. In addition, reports of new political prisoners being arrested and detained periodically appear in the press. One major reason for the discrepancy is the lack of transparency of the records of Burma’s 42 prisons and 109 labor camps,” it said. Another major cause for the large variation in the estimates is the use of different definitions of whom to include as political prisoners, it added.
CRS said the release of all political prisoners is also one of the preconditions for the removal of many of the US sanctions on Burma. The economic sanctions required by the Customs and Trade Act of 1990 are to remain in place until the president certifies to Congress that certain conditions have been met.
The Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1997 authorizes the US president to ban new investments in Burma if “the Government of Burma has physically harmed, rearrested for political acts or exiled Aung Suu Kyi or has committed large-scale repression of or violence against the Democratic opposition.”
The BFDA requires a ban on all imports from Burma, a ban on the products of certain Burmese companies, a freeze of the assets of certain Burmese officials and US opposition to “any loan or financial or technical assistance to Burma” until certain conditions are met, including the release of “all political prisoners.”
Finally, the JADE Act bans the issuance of visas to certain Burmese officials and their supporters, freezes the assets of certain Burmese officials and their supporters, and prohibits the provision of financial services to certain Burmese officials and their supporters until specific conditions have been met, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners.
In addition, the JADE Act’s ban on the import of jadeite and rubies from Burma and articles of jewelry containing jadeite and rubies from Burma is to remain in place until certain conditions have been met, including the release of all political prisoners, the report said.