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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2002 East Asian and Pacific Affairs Remarks, Testimony, and Speeches

U.S. and Burma

James A. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Remarks to the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Conference on Burma
Washington, DC
November 21, 2002

It is relatively rare to have the opportunity to speak before so many experts on Burma so I am especially grateful for this opportunity to review events of the past year and look ahead to some of the issues which will arise in the year to come.  When I accepted your invitation to speak, I had hoped that we would have significant good news to share, and even new acquaintances to make.  But it was not to be.  I think it fair to say that Burma represents a most frustrating challenge for American diplomacy.  I break no new ground when I observe that Burma was once poised to be one of the most prosperous countries of Southeast Asia.  Now its broken economy has trouble feeding itself.  This is a man-made, not a natural phenomenon, and Burma's leaders should hang their heads in shame.   

Burma is a country that has more than once shown a willingness to be guided by its own particular lights.  For example, upon achieving independence, Burma chose not to join with neighbors India and Pakistan in becoming part of the British Commonwealth.  Later, it left the non-aligned movement (NAM) because the NAM became too aligned. 

The picture presented by events in Burma over the past year is decidedly mixed and it is a measure of how bad things are in Burma that even a “mixed” record represents some progress, but progress exceeded by disappointment.   

Unfortunately, conditions inside the country for the Burmese people remain dire and the optimism generated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release on May 6th has diminished as the regime continues to delay its dialogue with Daw Suu and her party.  The United States and other members of the international community have been frustrated by the SPDC's broken promises that it would make progress toward transition to democracy.  We are at the point where, absent further progress, the process that has begun may well falter, an outcome that will cause the international community to reassess again its approach to the issue of democracy in Burma.  If progress remains elusive, Burma must consider the possibility that other countries may join in measures with the U.S., such as a ban on new investment.   

The U.S. continues to recognize the 1990 elections as a valid expression of the will of the Burmese people; the positive developments of this spring and summer stand out so clearly only because the backdrop is so bleak.  Burma's population continues to be denied basic human and political rights across the board.  As welcome as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners has been, these individuals simply should not have been incarcerated in the first place.  We estimate that just under 900 political prisoners remain imprisoned, as well as perhaps a few hundred other politically significant individuals held for reasons arising from ethnic and other conflicts.  The announcement yesterday of the release of 115 political prisoners is welcome, but highly incomplete and inadequate.  Political transition cannot advance while the Burmese people cannot conduct political activities freely.  Those who remain incarcerated do not represent a danger to the state of Burma and should be released immediately.   

Our deep concerns about lack of progress toward democracy are exacerbated by the lack of transparency that is both understandable and troubling.  Understandable in that when attempting to move forward on sensitive issues, a very considerable measure of confidentiality can be essential.  Troubling in that the apparent lack of progress toward an agreed agenda for discussion of constitutional issues and a framework for a transition to democracy can only engender further disquiet.  Here, I think I must make the point that the SPDC does not enjoy the benefit of the doubt, nor is it entitled to do so.  The gap between its conduct and its statements is such that the regime as a collective entity does not have credibility in the international community.   

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the SPDC's reaction to allegations of extensive, systematic use of rape by the military in Shan state and its manipulation of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) efforts to expand its work in ethnic regions.  For a regime spokesman to deny categorically all charges of rape without any investigation does more than strain credulity.  And while we were encouraged that the SPDC subsequently invited the ICRC to inquire into the allegations, that organization for its own understandable reasons declined to do so.  A later attempt to portray an ICRC field trip as an investigation into those allegations when the ICRC made clear it was doing no such thing was irresponsibly wrong.  That tactic devalues the representations of the SPDC to the point that even tentative concrete steps - such as the eventual, reluctant, acknowledgement by the government that rapes had indeed been committed by soldiers - are submerged in the outrage over the indefensible.  In this connection, it is once again clear that there are very few areas in which Burma cannot benefit from more transparency.  In fact, none easily comes to mind. 

The United States, in cooperation with other concerned nations, continues to press for a credible international investigation of these egregious human rights abuses.  Rape is not the only abuse against ethnic civilian populations that concerns us.  We are deeply troubled by extra-judicial killings, forced relocations, and forced labor that have intensified the refugee flow into Thailand this year and created a large population of internally displaced people.  As you are aware, the ethnic issue has been a key element affecting stability and conflict in Burma over time.  For political transition to succeed, ethnic representatives must be included in planning for that transition at an appropriate time.  Aung San Suu Kyi's recent trip to Shan State illustrates her commitment to the ethnic groups of Burma and her concern for their participation and welfare. 

We have wondered whether the lifting of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest would prove real or only a brief interlude before a pretext would be found to restrict her movements and contacts once again.  After a few initial problems, it appears that she has considerable latitude to travel within Burma and to meet with individuals of her choosing.  Whether she can travel abroad and then return to Burma is a proposition that remains to be tested.  Given her intellectual vision, moral compass and tenacity of spirit, she will remain the touchstone for the democratic movement in Burma.  Institutions as well as individuals are critical and, in this regard, I would underscore the importance of the ability of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to open offices, to organize, and to enter the debate over politics and policy.  To date, approximately 70 of 300 NLD offices have been reopened. 

Burma has taken steps to begin to address international concerns about the prevalence of forced labor.  It has acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that forced labor has occurred and has taken initial steps to demarcate a new policy line.  The ILO now has appointed a liaison officer in Rangoon, an individual who will participate in the design of a Plan of Action to eradicate forced labor in Burma, will monitor the implementation of the Plan and will have the duty of presenting unpalatable findings to the SPDC leadership.   

The International Committee of the Red Cross continues to work on improvements in prison conditions and it too appears able to make informed representations to the SPDC leadership.   

Burmese cooperation with the international community on narcotics issues has continued to improve in real terms.  Over the past year, the area under poppy cultivation has declined by 26 per cent and opium production in the country as a whole is now less than one-quarter its level in 1996.  Unfortunately, methamphetamine production, which strikes worst at Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors, has likely increased.  Burma has passed and begun to enforce money-laundering legislation and has worked constructively with the United Nations Drug Control Program and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as with Australia and China.  We need to be mindful that even with the best of cooperation, the drug problem in Burma will not be resolved in weeks or months.  Poppy cultivation continues in many areas where the government’s direct control is far from absolute and where short-term solutions would entail long-term, destabilizing costs.  Under more favorable circumstances, neighboring Thailand needed decades to contain the problem of poppy cultivation and opium production. 

Burma is working constructively with the United States on efforts to locate and account for servicemen missing in action from the Second World War.  The response to the need for enhanced security around our chancery in Rangoon was fast, effective, and continues to date.  Similarly, Burma has cooperated on the broader war against terrorism.  Unfortunately, the possibility of terrorist groups that threaten us all recruiting in Burma or using remote areas of Burma for transit cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Burma has also been the target of terror attacks.  Parcel bombs sent to Burmese embassies are acts of terrorism.  We condemn such acts and those who commit them. 

It is ironic that a regime that purports to exist for the purpose of ensuring the security of the nation has weakened Burma and aggravated the many afflictions endured by its people.  The SPDC's mismanagement of the economy has created extreme hardships for the people of Burma and an increased threat of instability and unrest.  New foreign investment - a category that does not include the United States - has dropped by 92% in the first half of 2002 compared to the same period in 2001.  Investors already in Burma are voting with their feet and heading for the exit door.  The rationale for decisions such as buying a nuclear reactor or MIG-29 fighters escapes comprehension.  Little quality information on the Burmese economy is available, and we need to begin gathering more accurate information and analyses so that time will not be lost when a democratic transition opens the way for work directly with a government in Rangoon.   

An impoverished and insecure Burma, one that is at odds with itself and with the international community will find the necessary recourse in a democratic system that is representative, transparent and accountable.  To that end, the United States and key members of the international community are resolved to maintain our insistence on positive change - change that is essential before we even consider dropping sanctions.  We will acknowledge and respond to positive change when it occurs.  And we will prepare ourselves to assist a transition to democracy.  We will also be alert to opportunities to advance preparations for democracy now.  In days past, we had little choice but to focus our programmatic efforts to support democracy on the border areas of Burma and in other third countries.  Apart from continuing those efforts, new possibilities present themselves now and we will explore them, while all the time being careful not to assist the regime and to seek out the opinions of democratic elements regarding proposed programs.  The critical terrain in Burma's struggle for democracy is inside Burma itself.  We must be there to support those who are the closest to that struggle.  One appropriate model for such in-country activities is the one that we are using in approaching the global issue of HIV/AIDS.   

It will remain important for the international community to remain not perhaps in lock step, but in at least loose formation if our efforts are to be successful.  In this connection, I would like to pay tribute to that exemplary international statesman, Tan Sri Razali Ismail of Malaysia.  Ambassador Razali has persevered in the face of great difficulty and accomplished much.  It is my hope that he continues in his critical role.  A special note of appreciation should also be given to Thailand, which has generously allowed displaced persons and refugees from Burma to find shelter and safety even as it tries to improve what has historically been a difficult relationship with its western neighbor.  We hope this positive contribution will continue.  

ASEAN, of course, accepted a special responsibility when it extended membership to Burma at a time when it remains under military rule.  We look to ASEAN to continue its support for Ambassador Razali's mission and to redouble efforts to explain the realities of the world to the SPDC.   

For advocacy of democracy is truly a universal impulse and without democracy, Burma is fated to experience a stunted future, one filled with opportunities lost at home as well as abroad.  Or, Burma's military leaders can take a better path that could begin and look to the future in many ways.   All of the people of Burma deserve so much better.     

Released on November 22, 2002

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