Remarks to the Annual Conference of the U.S. Campaign for BurmaPaula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
George Washington University
February 26, 2005
Thank you Michelle for that introduction. I commend you and today’s participants for your tireless devotion to the cause of Burmese freedom. Your resolve and determination are inspiring. Thanks also to Jeremy Woodrum and Aung Din for organizing this event, and the members of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, for their steadfast support for the Burmese people. I also would like to recognize Charm Tong, this year’s recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award.
We meet today to address the dire situation in Burma, where a small cadre of dictators continues to rule without the consent of the Burmese people. Virtually every basic human right is routinely abused, and those in control do not offer even the pretense of acting in the best interests of their people.
We also have come to discuss our hope for Burma, and to stand in solidarity with those who are denied the individual rights and liberties that are the birthright of every man and woman everywhere. In this, we are joined by governments and individuals around the world who are working to help the Burmese people in their struggle for freedom.
The time is long overdue for the Burmese people to be represented by a government of their selection. This was the course charted by one of modern Burma’s revered founders, Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. In turning his talents against colonialist powers and then against Imperial Japan, he foresaw a Burma that was independent and free. Before independence, he remarked: "We have seen that the greatest of our national tasks is to win national freedom." But he also knew instinctively that the cause of freedom was not for the fainthearted. In the same speech, he said: "This then is how we must conceive of our freedom struggle…that it may run several gauntlets before it comes to its destined goal and that it cannot be treated as a question of days, months or even years."
Aung San knew that freedom and democracy are not easy to achieve. But he knew they were worth fighting for, and while he did not see a free Burma in his life, he did know it was his nation’s destiny. That destiny has been delayed by Burma’s rulers, but it can never be destroyed, and every dawn brings us one day closer to when a free Burma can join the ever-expanding community of democracies around the world.
For those of us gathered here, and those who suffer in Burma, this has been a long struggle. In 1989, when I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Human Rights Bureau, I gave a speech on Human Rights Day, which I titled Dreams and Defiance. I described the regime’s brutal and ruthless crackdown on dissent and the brave defiance of Aung San Suu Kyi. Earlier that year, she had been traveling around Rangoon and was confronted by Burmese army soldiers--the same ones who had recently massacred thousands of unarmed citizens demonstrating for democracy. The soldiers aimed their rifles at her and warned her she would be shot if she proceeded. Aung San Suu Kyi slowly and calmly walked through their ranks, ignoring the threats on her life. Such is the indomitable spirit of those who fight for Burmese freedom.
One lesson of the last century is that tyranny is not easily surmounted. The long struggle of the Burmese people is proof of that. But another clear lesson is that the fight can be won--indeed, it almost always is when free nations work together and join forces with those who seek liberty within an oppressive country. In that same speech in 1989, I noted numerous affronts to freedom and democracy committed by governments in Central and South America, Central Europe, the still-existent Soviet Union, South Africa, and elsewhere. Since then, there has been a relentless tide of freedom that has swept away dictatorship after dictatorship. The elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine remind us that all people everywhere aspire to freedom and deserve a government of their choosing. This is true of the Burmese too--it is something for which they yearn and their captors fear. I have no doubt that Aung San’s vision of a free Burma ultimately will be fulfilled.
We will continue to help the people of Burma in their struggle. We need to press the world to stand firm against the junta and remind people everywhere of precisely what is going on in Rangoon. They must know that the junta rules by decree and is not bound by any constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental human rights or rule of law. Security forces continue to torture prisoners, commit rape and engage in extrajudicial killings. The junta monitors the communications of its citizens and searches their homes without warrants. The junta also forcibly relocates large ethnic minority populations, confiscates land and property, uses forced labor and conscripts child soldiers.
Other human rights concerns revolve around violence against women and trafficking in persons. Burma is a source, and to a lesser extent, destination country for persons trafficked for sexual and labor exploitation. Economic mismanagement by the government, corruption by local officials, and forced labor policies are driving factors behind Burma’s huge trafficking problem. Burma also remains the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium, and remains a primary source of amphetamine-type stimulants in Asia. While some progress has been made in fighting drugs, the results are far from satisfactory. Last year, the U.S. Government again could not certify Burma as a nation that is making acceptable progress toward achieving the goals of the U.N. convention on the control of narcotic and psychotropic substances.
Those responsible for this misrule maintain their control through surveillance, harassment of political activists, intimidation, arrests, incommunicado detention, physical abuse, and restrictions on citizens’ contacts with foreigners. Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained since the brutal attack on her convoy by surrogates of the government on May 30, 2003. Last December, the junta extended her indefinite detention for at least another year. There are over 1,000 political prisoners in Burma. Despite its highly publicized prisoner releases, the government arrested at least 85 democracy supporters in 2004; of which 43 remain in prison.
With conduct like this, it is clear why Secretary of State Rice recently noted that Burma is one of the world’s outposts of tyranny. Those in power in Rangoon should understand that we hold them solely responsible for the well-being and safety of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners. They should release these citizens immediately and unconditionally, engage the democratic opposition in a meaningful dialogue leading to the establishment of democracy, and ensure respect for the fundamental human rights of the Burmese people.
For its part, the United States is employing a variety of tools against the repression in Burma. President Bush signed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act on July 28, 2003. The law and an accompanying Executive Order imposed additional U.S. sanctions against the Burmese government, including a ban on the import of Burmese products, a prohibition on the export of financial services, a targeted asset freeze, and visa restrictions against the junta and United Solidarity Development Association--the junta’s mass mobilization organization.
The U.S. works with like-minded countries, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to maintain maximum international pressure on Burmese leaders. We have called on the EU and other governments to consider additional sanctions, including a prohibition on importing Burmese products. Broader agreement on such measures would send a strong message to the junta.
We support programs that promote democratic values, human rights, the rule of law, and good governance. We fund organizations 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 leadership roles in a free society. All of this humanitarian and democracy-related assistance is channeled through non-governmental organizations.
Many of you in this room and many who will hear these remarks in Burma have toiled for a long time at securing the freedom of the Burmese. As Aung San said, the struggle will take time. But it will not be interminable. Democracy is on the march around the world, including Asia. While the dictators of Rangoon may project an image of control, those who have fought tyranny around the world and those who fight it from within Burma, know just how ephemeral and weak this power really is. It cannot ever defeat the universal desire of freedom. We do not know the exact day Burma’s dictatorship will end, but we do know that it will end one day.
Until then, the people of Burma should know that they have our unwavering support in their fight for liberty. As President Bush said in his inaugural address last month, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country."
And so we will continue to work with you until the day that a free Burma with a true, elected government, takes its rightful place in the community of democracies. I thank you for your steadfast and strong commitment to this important cause.
Released on February 28, 2005