IMG_0502-tomspeaking-fbNote: The following is the oral testimony provided by Tom Andrews to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Spotlighting Human Rights in Southeast Asia.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you very much for convening this important hearing. It is an honor for me to be here. I also want to thank you for the leadership that you provided in bringing what has been an inconvenient truth about Burma to the attention of this congress and to the public. The truth in Burma is one of systematic abuse, discrimination and assault on members of minority communities, from the Rohingya ethnic minority in the west, to Kachin and Shan ethnic minority states to the east, to Muslims who are finding themselves threatened and under attack in communities throughout the country.

I have traveled extensively in Burma over the last three years, and I can report to you, Mr. Chairman, that the brutal reality that I discovered in my travels contradicts the all-too-pervasive good news narrative of a nation securely on a path to democracy, justice and the rule of law.

I made several visits to what you aptly described as concentration camps in western Rakhine that house more than 140,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim community. These men, women and children were marched to these camps after violence destroyed their villages and neighborhoods in Sittwe. They’ve been confined their ever since, living wretched lives in isolation with virtually every aspect of their lives controlled by government security. Approximately 1.2 million additional Rohingya live in other areas of Rakhine state. While their homes and villages have not been torched in ethnic violence, they too live in fear, and face restrictions on their freedom of movement, on who they can marry, on how many children they can have, on access to education and on the construction of religious buildings.

These unbearable conditions have led tens of thousands of Rohingya to leave the country by sea. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that some 80,000 Rohingya have fled by boats since 2012. Of those, hundreds, if not thousands, are believed to have drowned. Those who have survived have ended up in surrounding countries such as Thailand or Malaysia, and often fall victim to human traffickers who imprison them and force them to work on rubber plantations or as sex workers until family members come up with ransom.

I traveled to Malaysia where I followed and met with some of these people and their families, and they told me personally, Mr. Chairman, that the risk that they took was greater than the living hell that they were bearing with in Burma. The suffering of the decision that you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, of the eviction of Doctors Without Borders from Rakhine state continues to this day. 150 people, in fact, died in the first two weeks of that expulsion, and that was at the end of February.

It is unimaginable how many people have died, but I’ve seen them. I’ve spoken with them. I took photographs and met with their families. And, Mr. Chairman, when you were advancing the resolution of the Rohingya on the floor of the house, you displayed photographs that I took in those camps of these people. I’m afraid to say, Mr. Chairman, that some of the families and people that you displayed on the floor have since perished.

The government of Burma claims that it can fill the gap that has been left by the expulsion of Doctors Without Borders, but I can tell you that Doctors Without Borders, last year alone, provided more than 400,000 healthcare consultations and over 2,900 emergency referrals. There is no way the government of Burma can meet that need.

While the plight of the Rohingya in western Burma is the most egregious and urgent, anti-Muslim campaigns stretch across the entire country. The infamous 969 Movement of extremist Buddhist monks, led by Ashin Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Buddhist bin Laden”, systematically exploits and fans popular fear and prejudice. Wirathu calls Muslims “dogs” and “African carp”, who “breed quickly and violently” and “eat their own kind”. Such dehumanization, the use of hate speech, well-organized campaigns, the denial of basic healthcare, and the systematic persecution of a specific people are all known precursors to genocide. But Muslims are not the only people under siege.

For the last three years, government forces tortured and raped many in the Kachin and northern Shan states. A report by Fortify Rights last month documented systematic use of torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment of more than 60 civilians by military authorities. Similarly, a report by the Women’s League of Burma has documented more than 100 cases of rape being committed by Burma’s military. It’s being used, they say, as a tool against ethnic minorities.

I was in Kachin state, in fact, when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, and I saw first-hand the violence that was recurring in those villages. It was a stark reminder of the dark side of developments in Burma that could not be ignored, even as we want to celebrate positive reforms that indeed have been made.

Mr. Chairman, I believe that the disturbing conditions and trends in Burma require a fundamental reassessment and recalibration of U.S.-Burma policy. I have outlined some of those policies specifically.

One of them is increasing number of high-level officials of the United States going to Burma. Secretary of State Kerry is scheduled to go there next month. President Obama is scheduled to visit Burma in November. I think all of these trips and indicators by the United States of growing acceptance of the conditions in Burma need to be challenged, and questioned and stopped.

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate you holding this hearing. I very much appreciate your concern for the people of Burma, and I’ll be very happy to answer any questions.

Read the full written testimony

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