On Thursday, September 19, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a hearing entitled “An Unclear Roadmap: Burma’s Fragile Political Reforms and Growing Ethnic Strife.” United to End Genocide President and CEO Hon. Tom Andrews, U.S. Campaign for Burma Executive Director Jennifer Quigley, Arakan Rohinga Union Director General Dr. Wakar Uddin, and The Humpty Dumpty Institute President Ralph L. Cwerman testified. Watch the video of the hearing here.
Rep. Steve Chabot, Chair of the Subcommittee, opened the hearing with a brief synopsis of ongoing human rights violations and legal challenges in Burma. He criticized the US Administration for responding to human rights abuses in Burma by rapidly granting concessions, lifting sanctions, and pursuing military-to-military relations. He argued that the US must slow down the engagement process and set concrete benchmarks that the Burmese government must meet to demonstrate true commitment to reform.
Tom Andrews shared his experiences from his recent trip to Arakan State, recounting the dire conditions the Rohingya people face and the government’s ongoing violence and apartheid-style policies in the region. “People are forced to live in these conditions not because of what they’ve done but because of who they are,” said Andrews, who also spoke of the government’s blanket oppression of Burma’s ethnic groups. “The untold story of Burma is not party of the sunny narratives” that are now so common. Andrews warned that continuing to lift sanctions will not inspire in Burma; these sanctions are the very tools that have provided necessary pressure for reform. Lifting them further will empower the Burmese government and military and turn a dangerous situation into a perilous position for the Rohingya. Congress must recognize what is actually happening in Burma and send the right signals, rather than the wrong ones, to the Burmese government.
Jennifer Quigley explained that since the US lifted a number of sanctions, the pace of reforms has slowed tremendously and the military’s routine use of violence against the Burmese people has escalated. Land confiscation is pandemic, the military breaks ceasefires to clear the way for investment projects, violence has displaced thousands of people while the Burmese authorities block relief, and the police have used chemical agents to crackdown on protestors with impunity. The US Administration clearly needs to change its approach and demand an international investigation into ongoing human rights abuses. Quigley argued that the US must change the way it approaches Burma policy because Burma has demonstrated that it relents before sanctions are lifted, not after. “US-Burma military relations won’t solve impunity and systemic abuses,” said Quigley.
Dr. Wakar Uddin spoke on the tightening of restrictions and the lack of basic human rights in IDP camps in Arakan State. Many victims – rather than the perpetrators – of anti-Muslim violence have been arrested, even youth. Uddin advised the US Government not to engage in military-to-military activities with Burma while it continues to enact war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic groups. Uddin emphasized that the Burmese military is not assisting or providing aid to Burma’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised, but rather flexing its muscle to maintain control and fuel fear and violence – US military engagement will only lend the military legitimacy, not cajole it into submitting to civilian control.
Ralph Cwerman expressed hope in Burma’s reforms and argued that the US Government should further collaboration with the Burmese government. He in tandem quickly dismissed the persecution of the Rohingya people (calling violence “tense” and “serious” but not indicative of mass atrocity crimes) and the ongoing conflicts between ethnic minority groups and the Burmese military.
Q & A
Rep. Chabot began the Q & A by expressing his concern that re-engagement with Burma was premature and that the Obama Administration has refused to testify before the Subcommittee about its plans. Chabot agreed that benchmarks should be established before the US furthers military-to-military (“mil-to-mil”) relations and asked what these benchmarks should entail.
Mr. Andrews answered that firstly, systemic impunity needs to stop and those guilty of mass atrocity crimes must be held accountable. He stipulated also that the military must be brought under civilian control, that the constitution must be revised in order to void the military’s control of parliament, and that military attacks and human rights violations must stop. To pursue mil-to-mil relations without requiring the Burmese government to meet these benchmarks would be detrimental to the formulation of a democratic state.
Rep. Chabot asked why civil society/ethnic groups seem to be giving two competing messages on US mil-to-mil relations and which should be used to guide US policy.
Ms. Quigley responded that civil society/ethnic groups have said in meetings with US Government officials that they want the US military to train the Burmese military on human rights law, but they assumed that the US Government would first mandate certain preconditions, such as the Burmese military demonstrating that they want reform by stopping all attacks; withdrawing troops; publicly acknowledging that human rights abuses have and continue to be committed by the Burmese military and committing to a zero tolerance policy; agreeing to revise the Constitution to bring the military under civilian control; and establishing, with international support, an independent military police force that will investigate allegations of human rights abuses by soldiers, and creating an open judiciary process where such soldiers are given fair trials and sentences.
Rep. Ami Beri made note of the witnesses’ prior references to Rwanda and potential genocide in Burma and requested witnesses to expand more on these comments and what the US can do about confronting genocide.
Mr. Andrews held that isolation, segregation, and ethnic cleansing policies directed at the Rohingya and enforced by means of fear and intimidation. In combination with anti-Muslim persecution and the government’s complicity in mass atrocity crimes, are the “building blocks of genocide.” He argued that the US is the most influential country in the world and is thus in the strongest position to block further abuse.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher gave remarks on his visit to Burma some years ago, the Burmese military’s murder of ethnic peoples, the Burmese government’s refusal to reform, the need for the US to stand up for Muslim victims of violence, and how US military engagement with Burma is clearly premature.
Rep. George Holding remarked that the US must wait to establish military relations until Burma has ended military relations with China and North Korea. He asked witnesses a question about separating Burma from Chinese and North Korean influence.