Children displaced by the Burmese army in Kachin State

Given ongoing violence in Burma, particularly attacks by the government against ethnic minorities, Congress has an important role to play in ensuring that the United States government maintains pressure against the regime.

On June 12, Senator Mitch McConnell was joined by Senators Richard Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and John McCain in introducing Senate Joint Resolution 43 (S.J.Res. 43). The legislation would renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, which bans the importation of goods from Burma.

These sanctions must be renewed by Congress each year. In the past, renewal has been a fairly routine affair, but this year is different. The U.S. and the international media have hailed Burma’s by-elections, which resulted in the election of Aung San Suu Kyi, as a victory for democracy. The Obama administration has already joined the EU in rewarding Burma’s government by lifting bans against investment, which major corporations such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil are eager to take advantage of. Problematically, these messages may suggest to members of Congress that the troubles in Burma are largely resolved and that the sanctions instituted by the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act are no long necessary.

However, the reality in Burma is not so rosy. Congress must understand that, while some reforms have been made, the situation for many Burmese remains unchanged. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy may have won 43 of 44 seats they contested in the election, but it represents less than 7% of the total seats in Parliament. The constitution guarantees at least 25% of the seats in parliament to members of the military, ensuring that the constitution can never be amended without the military’s consent. The regime and its cronies, which have controlled Burma for decades, still maintain power in the country, including control over many of the most profitable sectors of the economy.

In ethnic national areas, human rights violations carried out by government forces, such as torture, rape, the use forced labor, and extrajudicial killings are ongoing. Most recently, violence has escalated in Kachin State.

The Senate legislation just introduced is identical to a bill, House Joint Resolution 109 (H.J.Res. 109), introduced in the House of Representatives on May 18, 2012. These bills must be passed by the House and Senate by the end of July. If this doesn’t happen, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act will automatically expire and these crucial sanctions will be removed.

As the State Department has already announced the lifting of the investment ban, some travel bans, and reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the sanctions instituted by Congress remain the last effective point of leverage the U.S. has in pushing Burma towards continuing and permanent reforms. As Senator McConnell said in his statement on the floor, “For the first time in half a century, Burma seems on the right path to reform, and reauthorization of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act places the United States Congress squarely on the side of reform and of reformers.”

Email your Representatives and Senators today to encourage them to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. Representatives can co-sponsor H.J.Res. 109 and Senators can co-sponsor S.J.Res. 43.

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