I have been an advocate for human rights and democracy in Burma since the year I was elected to the House to represent the 1st Congressional District of Maine. That year, 1990, was when Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to an overwhelming electoral victory in Burma.
I went to Congress. She went to prison.
Suu Kyi’s movement from prison to house arrest to Parliament is truly remarkable and reforms ushered in by Burma’s President Thein Sein should be recognized and rewarded by the United States and the international community.
But the fact of the matter is, a great deal has not changed in Burma. Pressure by the United States and the international community was key to making change in Burma possible. Abandoning this leverage prematurely jeopardizes progress and condemns those who continue to suffer in Burma to more of the same.
Last year, during elections that secured Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in Parliament, I was in Kachin State where I heard stories of killing, forced disappearances and death from disease because displaced populations had been largely cut off from international humanitarian aid.
Unfortunately, Kachin State is not alone. The Rohingya ethnic minority, a long-persecuted minority of approximately one million people, have lived in the Rakhine State of western Burma for many generations. Deadly sectarian violence erupted there last June and again in October.
State security forces not only failed to protect the Rohingya they were responsible for killings, beatings, and mass arrests while obstructing access to humanitarian aid.
Behind these attacks are conditions that point to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In addition to being brutalized, the Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship and face restrictions on their ability to travel and even marry.
These attacks and restrictions are not imposed because of what Rohingya might have done, but because of who they are.
Last year President Thein Sein effectively proposed the ethnic cleansing of the entire area where Rohingya citizens have lived for generations. He called for the expulsion of all Rohingya or, if no nation would take them, that they be put into camps. While he has since modified how he speaks about the Rohingya, the policies of his government and the actions of the Burmese military speak volumes.
In light of these brutal realities, the Administration’s approach of, as the Heritage Foundation put it, “gentle persuasion and positive reinforcement,” must be re-examined and challenged. Congress needs to know if the lifting of most forms of pressure on the regime combined with a visit by the President of the United States might be sending an unfortunate signal to some that violence, discrimination, systematic human rights violations and the disenfranchisement of an entire people may, indeed, be acceptable.
There are several steps that the U.S. Congress can take:
Congress needs to exercise its oversight role that includes a focus on:
- the ongoing killing of civilians;
- restrictions of humanitarian aid;
- the military’s attacks and gross human rights violations in Kachin State, the severe plight for Rohingyas in Rakhine State;
- the widespread displacement caused by pandemic land grabbing;
- the dominance of the military over civilian authorities; and
- political prisoners who remain behind bars.
Additionally, Congress should push the administration to call for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry that covers not only recent violence in Rakhine and Kachin states but anywhere else where abuses have taken place.
It is imperative that the U.S. government be clear that continued abuses will be met with consequences and that rewards given up to this point truly are also “reversible”.
Congress will need to play a critical role in moving forward. Let us reward genuine progress but let us not condemn the people of Burma—particularly those living in ethnic minority states—to the consequences of a long oppressive military regime that is suddenly freed of accountability and consequences for its behavior.