The Burmese National Elections are fast approaching. But instead of praising Burma for its second election since transitioning from a military dictatorship, U.S. lawmakers this week expressed deep concerns about the country’s backsliding on human rights and commitment to democratization. Repression and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya along with the military’s constitutionally guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats means this election will not be free or fair, before even a single vote is cast.
These concerns were voiced at a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on Wednesday October 21. United to End Genocide President Tom Andrews was a featured witness, testifying before the Subcommittee warning of ongoing hate campaigns and abuses that put the country at risk of future mass atrocities and even genocide.
“Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities face widespread discrimination and restrictions,” Mr. Andrews said, “The Rohingya Muslim minority faces persecution and the risk of genocide.” He urged the U.S. Congress to closely re-examine U.S. policy towards Burma.
Mr. Andrews and Jennifer Quigley from the U.S. Campaign for Burma pointed to disturbing trends in backsliding on the part of the military backed government. Of the 11 promises Thein Sein made to President Obama during his 2012 visit to Burma, only one has been entirely fulfilled. The Burmese government has continued to imprison citizens critical of the regime, including Patrick Khum Jaa Lee who was arrested in response to a Facebook post. Most disturbing, the government continues its persecution of the Rohingya people, hundreds of whom are expected to flee Burma by sea at the end of the rainy season.
Congressmen Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Brad Sherman (D-CA), the Chair and Ranking Member of the subcommittee respectively, led members in questioning two panels of government officials and outside experts about the transparency and impartiality of the upcoming elections as well as how the United States should evaluate Burma’s burgeoning democracy considering its abhorrent human rights record.
Several members shared the feelings of Chairman Salmon towards the November 8th elections which he described as “both optimistic and pessimistic.” Chairman Salmon asked the question, “If the odds are intentionally in the ruling parties favor but they have a clean election how should the U.S. respond?”
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel stated that “We’re not wearing rose colored glasses. We are very mindful of the fundamental structural defects…there’s nothing fair about reserving 25% of the legislature for the military; there is nothing fair about disenfranchising the white card holders and Rohingyas.”
But despite these reservations, the Administration continued to express optimism. USAID Assistant Administrator Jonathan Stivers when pressed by members of the committee stressed that – in stark contrast to the 2010 elections – 93 parties are participating including 60 ethnic minority parties. And Mr. Russel concluded with hopes that the elections would be as free, fair, credible, and transparent as possible to ensure all parties accepted the results.
This continued optimism from the Administration underscores the need for continued pressure from Congress. Options for Congress to consider offered by United to End Genocide and the U.S. Campaign for Burma included withholding of trade benefits and military-to-military cooperation. Further backsliding should also bring on additional pressure through use of targeted sanctions of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list and consideration of renewal of lifted sanctions.
Pressure from the United States and international community was what enabled Burma’s transition from a military regime to the nascent democracy it is today. That same pressure is what’s needed now to help Burma take the next steps to ensure the protection and freedom of all of its citizens.