US Should Keep Burma on Reform Path, Congress Told

By Lalit K Jha 1 March 2013

WASHINGTON—A top US official, along with several rights experts, praised Burma’s reforms in the fields of human rights and rule of law on Thursday. But some warned that the US should keep pressure on Burma to ensure that it stays on the long path to becoming a rights-respecting democracy.

The comments were made during a hearing by the US Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Burma in Washington.

“Burma still has a very long road ahead and the US must continue to advocate for the full inclusion of vulnerable ethnic and religious groups within Burmese society and the political process,” Commission member Arizona Congressman Trent Franks said in his opening remarks.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner testified for the commission on issues such as political prisoners, legal reform, ethnic conflict and political control over Burma’s economy.

He praised the pace of Burma’s broad-ranging reforms, stating that he was optimistic about the country’s future, adding however, that reforms had been “top-down” and now needed to be matched by “bottom-up” participation from civil society groups and Burmese citizens.

“These changes have opened important and unprecedented political space. But open political space will not bring meaningful change unless more people throughout the country and in all segments of the society move into this space and start to use it,” the Obama administration official said.

Posner noted that President Thein Sein’s government had moved to reform and repeal military junta-era repressive laws, but that many such draconian laws still remained in place. He also said that Burma lacked an independent judiciary, adding that establishing this “is critical to advancing reforms.”

The official noted with concern how little rights protection the Muslim minority Rohingya enjoy in Burma. “Hatred of, and discrimination against, the Rohingya are widespread, with little public support to recognize them as an ethnic nationality,” Posner said.

The US government’s approach to Burma, in which sanction remain in place, although these have been waived for certain types of US investment, should be continued, Posner said.

“Our intention is to strike a balance, guarding against an economic free-for-all that would funnel investment to the military and its companies while still incentivizing responsible investment that contributes to Burma’s economic modernization,” he told the commission.

Human Rights Watch’s Washington director Tom Malinowski expressed satisfaction with Burma’s rights reforms, but also struck a strong cautionary note about the future of the reform process as it is “still not irreversible.”

Therefore, the legal framework of sanctions, including the JADE Act and the various presidential executive orders on Burma, should be retained at least through the country’s first free parliamentary elections in 2015, Malinowski said, when power should pass from the current military-influenced quasi-civilian government to a democratically elected one.

“The Obama Administration should also use in a creative and dynamic way the targeted financial restrictions that it has maintained through the Treasury Department’s [Specially Designated Nationals] list,” Malinowski said. This list contains Burmese officials and businessmen whose US assets are blocked and who Americans are prohibited from dealing with.

He made a particular point of stating that Burma should allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up an office inside the country to monitor the rights situation—a promise that President Thein Sein made to President Obama. “Unfortunately, the Burmese government has stalled in implementing this pledge,” Malinowski said.

Another rights expert, President of United to End Genocide Tom Andrews, urged Congress to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act to ensure that there remains a ban on gems sales, an industry that is closely tied to abuses and resource-grabbing in ethnic minority areas.

He said that in order to protect ethnic Kachin in northern Burma and the Muslim minority Rohingya in western Burma, the US should send a strong signal to the Burmese government and military to cease hostilities in ethnic areas and pursue irreversible reforms.

Andrews said US government sanctions on Burma should not be lifted unless the government begins negotiations over a political solution with ethnic rebel groups and until the military ends gross rights violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law, such as attacks on civilians in conflict regions.