Current Situation in BurmaMatthew P. Daley, Deputy Assistant Secretary, East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Testimony before the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, House International Relations Committee, at a Hearing on Burma
June 19, 2002
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, Mr. Chairman and the members of the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, for inviting me to speak to you today about the current situation in Burma.
The people of Burma live under an authoritarian military regime that is widely condemned for its repressive policies and serious human rights abuses. Military regimes in one form or another have controlled Burma for over 40 years. Until very recently, there seemed little cause for hope or optimism that this situation might improve.
It is possible, however, that Burma's stagnant, bleak political landscape could be gradually changing.
In 1988, the people of Burma demonstrated against 25 years of military rule in a country-wide popular uprising unprecedented in Burma’s history. The military violently suppressed those demonstrations, killing hundreds of protesters, and subsequently imprisoning thousands of regime opponents in harsh -- and sometimes fatal -- conditions. Even while establishing power through force of arms, however, the military promised elections would be held in 1990.
Those elections, as you know, resulted in an extraordinary victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 392 of the 485 seats contested. The military regime's National Unity Party won only 10 seats. The people of Burma overwhelmingly rejected the military regime and showed their support for democratic, civilian rule. This despite the regime’s efforts to cow its opponents, including barring major opposition figures from running for office and placing its most prominent opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. The military government has never recognized the results of the 1990 elections and has consistently refused the NLD’s requests to belatedly convene the parliament.
After the elections, the Burmese military regime held NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for almost 6 years, but they were unable to break her spirit or turn her supporters against her. On July 10, 1995 the regime released her from house arrest, and she immediately returned to her efforts to reach out to the people of Burma and to press the military regime to enter into a dialogue with the democratic forces in Burma. She steadfastly resisted all efforts to intimidate her and her party over the next 5 years. Although the Burmese military regime repackaged itself with a new name and acronym -- the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC -- its repressive policies remained the same.
The Burmese regime restricted Aung San Suu Kyi's political activities in Rangoon, and prohibited her travel outside the capital. In 1998, the military regime began a crackdown on the NLD that led to the detention of over 100 elected Members of Parliament, and placed onerous travel restrictions on almost 100 others. Mass arrests of NLD leaders and rank-and-file party activists soon followed. There is no agreement among the various parties as to the number of political prisoners currently being detained. Estimates range from about 250 by sources close to the SPDC to approximately 1,400 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The situation inside Burma changed dramatically in late 2000. After twice attempting to leave Rangoon to reconstitute NLD offices that had been forcibly closed by the regime, in September Aung San Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest by the military. Shortly afterward, she began secret talks with the SPDC that have continued throughout the past 18 months. It is these talks, and the modest results that they have produced so far, that provide a glimmer of hope that 14 years after the 8-8-88 demonstrations which began Burma's current agony, a brighter future could be on the horizon.
Approximately 250 political prisoners have been released since the talks began, including all but 17 detained members of parliament, although the ICRC reports that over 1,000 political prisoners remain in jail. More than 40 NLD offices that were forcibly closed by the regime have reopened. Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest on May 6, with the regime publicly stating that she would enjoy full freedom of movement and association, and committing itself to continue the process of political dialogue aimed at national reconciliation that began over 18 months ago. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose selfless devotion to the cause of freedom and democracy in Burma has inspired millions throughout the world, is back at work again in NLD headquarters as she resumes her duties as party leader.
Since her release, initial indications are mixed; she enjoys much greater freedom than before her house arrest, but we do not yet know if this freedom is really unconditional or whether it will be sustained. The real tests of the regime’s sincerity are to come. The ruling Generals have allowed her to travel outside of Rangoon, to Karen State. If they also allow her to engage in political activity, and allow the NLD to function as a full-fledged political party, that will represent an important step forward. If they do not, then this process will be proven hollow. Significant concrete steps toward democratic reform and improvement in observance of human rights will spur a positive response.
I would also like to recognize the efforts of UN Special Envoy for Burma Razali bin Ismail. Ambassador Razali has played a key role in facilitating the talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime. The steady stewardship of his UN mandate, evidenced by his creativity, energy, and integrity, has made a real difference in securing the successful results that have been achieved thus far.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that the current process will lead to anything more than the broken promises and failed assurances that have been the coin of the realm throughout the regime’s tragic history.
However, the SPDC has an historic opportunity to end the cycle of repression and economic stagnation that has devastated the people of Burma and move forward together with the democratic opposition in a process of national reconciliation that will benefit all the people of Burma. Such moments are rare in the history of a nation. We urge the Burmese generals to recognize the importance of the moment and build on the progress that has already been made. It is time for them to do the right thing.
Economically, the situation in Burma is bleak. Mired in political stagnation for over a decade, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per capita income of just $300 per year. SPDC economic mismanagement and reliance on forced labor, combined with lingering effects from the Asian financial crisis, have sent the Burmese economy into a downward spiral which the regime appears unable to halt. New foreign direct investment in Burma is falling, contributing to the financial collapse of the Burmese economy. The military's misplaced spending priorities, such as the purchase of MIG-29 fighters from Russia that the regime can ill-afford and which they can't long maintain in serviceable condition, have contributed to an inflationary cycle that now finds Burma's currency, the Kyat, trading at over one thousand to the dollar on the black market. U.S. and European investors continue to pull out of Burma due to the unfavorable political and economic situation.
The SPDC’s human rights record remains extremely poor with repression of political dissent, forced labor, ethnic persecution, lack of religious freedom, and trafficking in persons all figuring prominently. After a November 2001 visit, an International Labor Organization (ILO) high-level team reported little improvement in the serious forced labor problem. The Government of Burma has recently agreed to an ILO liaison office in Burma but has yet to agree to a full ILO presence or make significant effort to end forced labor. The USG again designated Burma as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act, because the 2001 report describes virtually no improvement in the state of religious freedom. Burma is a country of origin for trafficked persons, primarily of women and girls to Thailand as factory workers, household servants, and for sexual exploitation.
Burma is currently one of the world's largest producers of illicit opium and the primary source of amphetamine-type stimulants in Asia, producing an estimated 800 million methamphetamine tablets per year. Burma's opium is grown predominantly in Shan State, in areas controlled by former insurgent groups. Since the mid-1990s, the Burmese Government has elicited "opium-free" pledges from each group and, as these pledges have come due, has stepped up law-enforcement activities in the territories controlled by these groups. The major producers, and the strongest militarily, the Wa, are not due to be "opium-free" until 2005. As a general matter, the government of Burma must increase the scope and duration of its counternarcotics efforts to have a significant impact on the drug trafficking situation in that country.
The government of Burma has yet to address ancillary drug-related activities, such as internal corruption. But, over the past 18 months, the Burmese Government has considerably improved its counternarcotics cooperation with neighboring states. In 2001 in cooperation with the government of China and with the government of Thailand, the Burmese Government launched a major law-enforcement campaign against the Kokang Chinese. Counternarcotics forces made several drug seizures and arrested several traffickers, including an action resulting in the destruction of a trafficking group that the Chinese called one of the largest "armed drug smuggling groups in the Golden Triangle area." In April 2002, cooperation between Burma, China, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) resulted in a seizure of 354 kilos of heroin and the arrest of fourteen traffickers. Last week, the Burmese regime also enacted a long-awaited law designed to combat money-laundering and other criminal misuse of Burma's financial system.
As of 2001, Burma remains decertified for failing to address adequately its serious narcotics problems. We have outlined objectives the government of Burma needs to address this year in order to progress toward certification. We expect Burma to target high-level drug traffickers and their organizations, including their drug-related assets, expand opium poppy eradication, increase seizures of all illicit narcotics, control the diversion and illicit trafficking of precursor chemicals, continue cooperating with neighboring countries, fully enforce money-laundering laws, prosecute corrupt officials, and address domestic drug use and abuse. The government of Burma must significantly improve its record in those areas to be certified.
What is the U.S. Doing?
The immediate U.S. policy goals in Burma include support for democracy, respect for basic human rights, a more effective counternarcotics effort, counterterrorist cooperation, resolving MIA cases from WW II, and addressing humanitarian concerns such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic which threatens regional stability and prosperity. The bedrock of U.S. policy remains our support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's democratic opposition. It is our conviction, however, that there are other important policy goals which the U.S. can and should pursue without undermining our longstanding support for democracy and national reconciliation. Without support from the international community, Burma will not be able to adequately address the many severe humanitarian problems it faces, including a rising HIV/AIDS infection rate, other infectious diseases, and child malnutrition.
Mr. Chairman, let me specifically address a question here that I have been asked many times subsequent to Aung San Suu Kyi's release. We have no plans at the present time to remove our existing sanctions on Burma. While we warmly welcome Aung San Suu Kyi's release, it only represents the first step toward embracing democracy and facilitating national reconciliation. There remains much more to be done. We are only at the beginning of a potentially historic process, not at or near its end.
In recent months we have continued to pursue a multilateral strategy to seek improvement in our key areas of concern. We continue to consult about Burma regularly and at senior levels with leaders of the ASEAN nations, Japan, Korea, the UK, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and other countries that share our concerns and interests in Burma. U.S. leadership has played a critical role in marshalling the international community's focus and applying appropriate pressure to the regime to encourage political reform. The U.S. has long been in the forefront of efforts to encourage substantive political dialogue between the SPDC and the NLD.
Reflecting our concern over the regime's unacceptable policies, we have taken a number of steps: suspending economic aid, withdrawing GSP and OPIC, implementing an arms embargo, blocking assistance from international financial institutions, downgrading our representation from Ambassador to Charge d’Affaires, imposing visa restrictions on senior regime leaders and their families, and implementing a ban on new investment by U.S. persons or the facilitation by U.S. persons of new foreign investment.
We likewise have encouraged ASEAN, Japan, the EU, and other nations to take similar steps and other actions to encourage progress by the SPDC in these areas of key concern. Many nations join us in our arms embargo, including European countries, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Korea. The EU has also suspended economic aid and restricted the travel of senior regime officials.
Our efforts with the IFI community have been successful in blocking loans to the regime -- indeed, this is probably the single most effective sanction we have in place. Since 1988, we have taken an active role in pressing for strong human rights resolutions on Burma at the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Commission, as well as having worked vigorously in the ILO to condemn the lack of freedom of association for workers and the use of forced labor by the SPDC. The ILO's precedent-setting condemnation of Burma's forced labor practices in 2000 was due in no small measure to the efforts of our diplomats in New York and Geneva.
At our urging, the EU and associated European states joined us in imposing a ban on visas for high-level SPDC officials and their families. In addition, the European Union and Canada withdrew GSP trade benefits from Burma's agricultural and industrial products in March and August 1997, respectively, bringing their trade policies more in line with the U.S. withholding of GSP.
We assist several programs with funds made available by Congress to support democracy and humanitarian activities along the Thai-Burmese border among refugee, exile and ethnic populations. The funds are used to help train Burma’s future democratic leaders, to disseminate materials supporting democratic development inside Burma, and to increase international awareness of what conditions are like in Burma. Some of our largest grantees include Internews, which trains journalists and focuses on a free and independent media, and the Open Society Institute, which runs capacity-building programs along the border and provides academic scholarships for promising Burmese leaders. Our grant to the National Endowment for Democracy funds Burmese pro-democracy groups around the world, including the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the chief Burmese exile organization headquartered in Washington, DC, as well as several political opposition and human rights monitoring groups on the Thai-Burma border.
In 2002, these funds will total about $6.5 million. These activities have been effective in bringing pressure on the SPDC to enter into genuine discussions. Among other things, our assistance has facilitated discussions among the representatives of ethnic minorities so that they will be better prepared to join the national reconciliation process when the time comes. Other funds are used for humanitarian programs assisting refugees in Thailand and elsewhere. U.S. assistance has played a key role in supporting displaced Burmese and ethnic groups for nearly 15 years. If the opening signaled by ASSK's release proves genuine, we will consider shifting our focus to provide support for civil society and capacity building among Burma's youth who have been deprived of educational opportunities that we take for granted in democratic societies.
We have also supported organizations that work to document the deplorable human rights abuses of the current regime in Burma. This abuse is especially harsh in ethnic minority regions. This documentation has been critically important for informing UN Human Rights Commission resolutions on Burma and international assessment teams such as the ILO. The U.S. also supports activities to get accurate information into Burma, including Radio Free Asia and the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Mr. Chairman, you are probably aware of the report which USAID and the State Department recently submitted to Congress on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma. Burma has one of the world's fastest growing incidence of HIV/AIDS infection. UNAIDS estimates that there were 530,000 persons living with HIV/AIDS in Burma at the end of 1999, including 14,000 children. Unless checked, the disease threatens to destroy a generation of young Burmese much as it is destroying several societies in Africa. Moreover, the epidemic is not confined to Burma and its borders, but like other transnational scourges such as trafficking in persons and narcotics, affects Burma's neighbors and threatens our efforts to stop the spread of the disease throughout the region.
After consulting with government physicians and scientists at USAID and HHS, including CDC, academic experts such as Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins, and Burma's democratic opposition, we have developed tentative plans to deliver a modest level of HIV/AIDS humanitarian assistance inside Burma. The humanitarian assistance would be delivered through UN agencies or independent NGOs, and would benefit the people of Burma, not the military regime. We would monitor and evaluate the programs to ensure that the funds are being used as intended. Our approach has the support of the NLD.
We are moving forward with plans to initiate discussions about repatriating the remains of WW II-era American servicemen lost in action in Burma. The Defense Department has identified several crash sites with credible reports of U.S. remains. Returning the remains of fallen American heroes who more than 50 years ago gave their lives for the freedom and liberty we today enjoy is the right thing to do.
It is also our conviction that it is possible to pursue better communication and cooperation with Burma on reducing narcotics production and trafficking without diminishing our support for political reform and national reconciliation. Burma was the world's largest opium-poppy producer last year, but may well be overtaken by Afghanistan this year. The flow of Burmese methamphetamines into neighbors like Thailand, India, and China is a serious source of regional destabilization. We are making clear to the Burmese regime exactly what it needs to do in order to stop narcotics production and trafficking and be certified.
The U.S. provides no bilateral counternarcotics assistance to Burma. DEA does have an office in Burma, which shares some limited information with counternarcotics officials in Burma. The U.S. works with the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) and Japan to support the Wa Alternative Development Project conducted in the Wa ethnic area of the Shan State. The goal of this project is to reduce opium poppy cultivation and provide infrastructure support for economically viable alternative crop development. To date, the U.S. has contributed $7 million to this $12.1 million 5-year program. The U.S. has also funded a similar alternative development project run by the OSS-101 "Old Soldiers," who fought in Burma in World War II. The government of Burma does nor directly or indirectly benefit from these programs.
We will continue to use every opportunity to press the military regime to permit the Burmese people to have the leadership they themselves have chosen -- not one imposed on them from above through fear and force of arms. It is time for Burma’s military to move beyond confidence-building and enter into genuine political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic forces. When criticized for their repressive, heavy-handed policies, the SPDC is quick to respond that only the Burmese military stands between a united, stable country and chaos and dishonor. However, the Burmese military will play its most honorable role if it facilitates the transfer of power to civilian rule and resumes its appropriate place as the defender of the country’s security.
The obduracy of the military regime has rightly earned our condemnation and skepticism. We keep in mind, however, that in what was called a confidence-building phase between the regime and the NLD, both sides maintained confidentiality, so we are not aware of all of the details of the discussions.
However, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the continuing efforts of UN Special Envoy Razali give cause for a very cautious optimism that the darkest days are behind us, and that a new beginning is within reach.
With that hope in mind and that goal ever before us, we will continue to maintain our support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy and press for improvements in the human rights situation in Burma, even as we explore opportunities to bring humanitarian aid to the poor and suffering of Burma who so desperately need it. In so doing, we will be careful to structure our activities in a way that is consistent with and serves to reinforce our concern about democracy and human rights.
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, we are pleased that we have been able to work together with Congress on issues such as assistance to the pro-democracy forces and HIV/AIDS. We look for your continued interest and involvement in this issue. I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today about Burma and discuss these important and compelling issues. Thank you.
Released on June 19, 2002