Welcoming the Burma’s progress in its transition to democracy, United States of America today pledged support as the people of Burma seize the opportunity of change.
In his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington DC, Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor says the last 18 months have brought a number of changes to Burma.
Changes in Burma include from the release of hundreds of political prisoners to the revision of several repressive laws that many would have said were unthinkable just two years ago.
Change is not unthinkable for Burmese people
According to Mr. Posner, many activists and advocates who have been pushing for and laying the groundwork for the beginnings of a democratic opening in Burma didn’t accept change as unthinkable.
He says the United States seeks to support the government and people of Burma as they seize the opportunity of change.
“US recognizes that here, as elsewhere, change has come and will come principally from within.” – Mr. Posner
US Pushes for more reforms
According to Mr. Posner, despite the progress that has been made in many areas, such as the release of political prisoners and the successful by-elections last year, many serious problems remain.
However, he points out that the road to reform will be long and challenging; it will continue to be bumpy.
“The United States needs to continue to support and push for reform.” – Mr. Posner
He adds the United States should remain committed to serving as a long-term partner in the reform process as long as it continues to move forward.
US engagement should extend from its longstanding, strong commitment to promoting continued progress on democracy and human rights, he underlined.
Mr. Posner enumerates the Progress that still needs to be made in four key human rights areas:
1) the status of political prisoners; 2) legal reform; 3) the situation in Kachin State, Rakhine State, and the prospect for a broader national reconciliation; and 4) the political economy of democratic reforms.
Status of Political Prisoners
According to Mr. Posner, the U.S. government first engaged directly with senior Burmese government officials on this issue based on an extensive list of political prisoners we compiled in 2011.
He cites in several stages over the last 18 months the government has released nearly 800 political prisoners, including its most high profile dissidents, leaders of mass movements, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, people like Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, U Gambira, Hkun Htun Oo and others.
“They walked out of prisons across the country to cheering crowds and weeping family members.” – Mr. Posner
However, Mr. Posner says while the release of these prisoners was historic, the story of political prisoners in Burma did not end there.
He notes that nearly a year later, the government has formed an official “Political Prisoner Review Committee,” which held its first meeting in February in Rangoon.
This Committee, led by the Office of the President, is composed of eight government officials and eight former political prisoner representatives.
He explains that the work of this committee will not be easy.
“But its existence is a major step forward and the key to finding out the facts, healing wounds of the past, and moving forward towards national reconciliation.” – Mr. Posner
The Committee has the potential to achieve objectives critical to the country’s democratic transition, he added.
“First, it can accurately determine the number of remaining political prisoners in detention and prompt their unconditional release.” – Mr. Posner
Second, Mr. Posner says the Committee’s consideration of specific cases should give it an opportunity to identify laws that need to be reformed going forward and to make recommendations to that end.
Finally, Mr. Posner explains that the Committee has the potential to help advance efforts to provide care and facilitate the reintegration of released prisoners.
Mr. Posner emphasizes that the prisoner process represents a double opportunity not only can it bring the release of remaining political prisoners, it also can provide an example of how government and civil society can work together in an open and credible process to tackle difficult problems.
“It won’t be easy but the potential is tremendous.” – Mr. Posner
II. On Legal Reform
According to Mr. Posner, an important element of strong, democratic societies is adherence to the rule of law, which in turn depends on a strong constitution that has broad public support.
He says civil society actors, ethnic nationality representatives, and international human rights experts alike have repeatedly called for changes to Burma’s 2008 Constitution so the document may better reflect the country’s new democratic aspirations.
He notes the Constitution is the foundational document of any society and in the run up to the 2015 national elections there is an opportunity for the people and government to debate and decide how best to address these issues.
“Revision and repeal of flawed laws and regulations is another key area to which the government both executive and legislative branches should pay attention in the coming years.” – Mr. Posner
Independence of the judiciary also is critical to advancing reforms, he added.
Mr. Posner notes there is no independent bar association, and we are told that there is not one lawyer on Burma’s Supreme Court.
The justice system also lacks a number of basic elements of due process, he said.
III. On Kachin State and Rakhine State Updates
According to Mr. Posner, many of the country’s vast natural resources are located in its ethnic nationality regions, particularly in Kachin State, where war is being waged for both reasons of political autonomy generally and control over these resources specifically.
Mr. Posner points out that this ongoing fighting has contributed to human rights abuses and social instability.
In the past when the military and business join forces, there were patterns of land confiscation, forced labor, environmental destruction, and severe human rights abuses on local populations around these projects, he noted.
Mr. Posner notes that the government has signed ten ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups in the past year, including with the Karen National Union with which it had previously been at war for over 60 years.
“Still, the government’s previously longest running and most stable ceasefire with the Kachin broke down 18 months ago and fighting has intensified in recent months.” – Mr. Posner
In December 2012, the military used helicopters and jets to attack Kachin Independence Army positions, marking the first use of air power against an armed ethnic group in decades.
The Army continued using heavy artillery to shell KIA positions, he said.
“Estimates are that tens of thousands of Kachin IDPs remain cut off from international humanitarian aid since July 2012.” – Mr. Posner
Mr. Posner stresses the urgent need to grant immediate access for humanitarian organizations to all those in need.
In addition, the US remains concerned about the situation in Rakhine State, which has resulted in more than 100,000 IDPs since violence erupted in June and October.
Mr. Posner says this violence broke out quickly and included attacks on non-Rohingya Muslim communities such as the Kaman, one of the country’s 135 officially- recognized national races.
The Rohingya, unlike the Kaman, are not recognized as an ethnic nationality and with an estimated population of 800,000 inside Burma, they are the world’s largest stateless population, Mr. Posner stated.
“Hatred of, and discrimination against, the Rohingya are widespread, with little public support to recognize them as an ethnic nationality.” – Mr. Posner
Practical interventions to prevent further violence along with training in conflict mediation, dialogue facilitation, and community dialogue are necessary, he highlighted.
US provides aid to both the Rakhine and the Rohingya communities
According to Mr. Posner, the U.S. approach has focused on delivering humanitarian aid to both the Rakhine and the Rohingya communities in IDP camps and diplomacy with the government on longer term solutions to ensure that these temporary solutions do not occlude comprehensive reintegration and reconciliation of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.
“We will watch with great interest the findings and recommendations of the government’s Rakhine Commission report, which is due in March.” – Mr. Posner
IV. The Political Economy of a Rights-Respecting Democracy and U.S. Sanctions Policy
According to Mr. Posner, at the turn of the 20th century, Burma was one of the wealthiest states in Southeast Asia, boasting vast reserves of fossil fuels, rubies, gold, jade, tin, copper, timber, teak, and a plentitude of other natural resources.
“Today it is the poorest country in the region in per capita GDP.” – Mr. Posner
He says this reversal of fortune is the result, at least in part, of decades of self-isolation, repression and regression in the rule of law and quality of education coupled with economic mismanagement and civil war.
The military-business nexus is still strong despite recent political reforms, he added.
He notes there is still insufficient transparency relating to revenues from natural resource or into where these revenues end up.
Some critics allege that the country’s natural wealth, auctioned off to highest bidder, continues to be siphoned to offshore accounts rather than flowing into the national budget, he added.
He explains that if Burma is to develop the political economy of a modern, rights-respecting democratic state, the government will have to tackle this nexus with the tools of transparency, auditing, public disclosure, and full accountability for corruption.
United States has committed to supporting these efforts through our calibrated easing of economic sanctions to support political and economic reforms
According to Mr. Posner, in 2012, US broadly authorized new investment in Burma for the first time in 15 years, including in Burma’s multi-billion dollar oil and gas sectors.
However, to ensure that military-owned enterprises would not benefit from this opening, investment in military-owned companies remains off limits, he explained.
Similarly, U.S. companies are not authorized to make payments to the military to provide security for their investments, as the military is the primary driver of the worst human rights abuses, Mr. Posner stated.
Bottom-up Action to Match Top-down Reform
According to Mr. Posner, President Thein Sein’s government and the parliament have admirably created a top-down reform process that has pushed through a range of important initiatives at a rapid pace.
These changes have opened important and unprecedented political space, he said.
However, Mr. Posner points out that 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.
“Making Burma a home for all of its people will require broad, grassroots engagement by the widest possible range of its citizens, from ethnic leaders and bloggers, to lawyers and lawmakers, to factory workers and human rights advocates.” – Mr. Posner
All of these groups will need to push for structural changes from the bottom up, at the same time as the political leadership works to push reform from the top down, he noted.
“Where these two forces meet is not for the United States to say. It’s up to the Burmese to build trust on both sides and to negotiate a space where they can coexist peacefully, and in so doing to begin to make durable, systemic change.” – Mr. Posner
Mr. Posner underlines reforming the system from within is an immense task.
He says it will require political will from the top down, dynamism from the bottom up, and for those who have profited from power to share it.
US Optimistic of Burma’s future
“I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity. Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country, about you. You gave us hope and we bore witness to your courage.” – President Obama said at Rangoon University
According to Mr. Posner, President Obama has welcomed the progress made in beginning a transition to democracy, and urged further action.
He says the government used the occasion of President Obama’s visit to commit to eleven substantial steps to deepen and advance the reform process, including the creation of a credible process to resolve remaining political prisoner cases, providing unhindered access by the ICRC to all prisons and labor camps, and inviting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in Burma.
“I am optimistic about Burma’s future.” – Mr. Posner
He underlines that US optimism should not result in easing up on its efforts to promote further reform or putting blinders on about the profound challenges ahead in the country.
He says it does mean that US must reconsider long held assumptions, recognize the dynamic change that is occurring, and seize the opportunities to support the Burmese people and especially its politically active civil society as they pursue real, sustainable reforms from within.
US Supports Burma’s Democratic Reforms
As Burma pursues the road for reform, development and democracy, the United States of America has expressed commitment to support Burma’s democratic reforms.
The US government has pursued a policy of engagement to support human rights and reform in Burma.
The April 1st parliamentary by-elections in 2012 represents a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government.
It is an important step in the country’s transformation, which in recent months has seen the unprecedented release of political prisoners, new legislation broadening the rights of political and civic association, and fledgling process in internal dialogue between the government and ethnic minority groups.
The United States is committed to taking steps alongside the Burmese Government and people as they move down the road of reform and development.
The US government is currently consulting actively with the Burma’s Congress as well as its allies and friends in Europe and Asia on US response to these recent developments.
In addition, the United States also enabling private organizations in the United States to pursue a broad range of nonprofit activities from democracy building to health and education.
The US also facilitates travel to the United States for select Burmese government officials and parliamentarians.
The United States also begins the process of a targeted easing of U ban on the export of U.S. financial services and investment as part of a broader effort to help accelerate economic modernization and political reform.
Obama Administration continues to show commitment to promote democracy and human rights in Burma and on key recent developments in Burma including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the 2010 elections, and the formation of a government headed by former top regime general and now President Thein Sein.
The United States is currently pursuing parallel and complementary tracks in a full-scale effort to advance progress on core concerns of the United States and the international community, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, respect for human rights, and an inclusive dialogue with the political opposition and ethnic groups that would lead to national reconciliation.