As we all know, or should by now, there were cathartic mass demonstrations in Burma this monsoon season, first led by a few activists in mid-August protesting fuel price raises and culminating in the monks coming out in the streets accompanied by applauding civilians, numbering 100,000 on the peak day of 25 September. Alas,the military junta which rules Burma knew no other way to “handle” the Burmese peoples’ legitimate and peaceful demands for a system change and clamped down again with brutal force on the 26th and 27th. We now know that an estimated 200 died and thousands are under arrest. Disturbing photos and videos of the atrocities committed by the army have leaked out via the Internet and according to all reports, continue, with only a surface calm. The junta’s response caused mass international outrage.
There have been Senate and well as Congressional Hearings. I was so fortunate as to be able to attend the special Senate Foreign Relations Sub-committee Hearing on Burma in the Dirksen Building at 2.30 PM, on 2 October.
The Hearing was attended by over 60 Burmese dissidents and democracy supporters. The DC based U.S. Coalition for Burma was well represented and almost all attendees wore USCB T-shirts calling on the front of the shirts for an arms embargo on Burma and with a sign on the back symbolizing how bloody the upcoming Beijing Olympics will seem. Burma (called Myanmar by the junta) has the largest trade ties with Thailand, China and India, and China and Russia supply it with arms. USCB and others are pressuring China to effect change in Burma.
Barbara Boxer opened the session by stating what unimaginable horrors the people of Burma have suffered. She held up photographs taken by citizen journalists inside Burma which had been printed in a large format by USCB staff. Senator John Kerry made a very strong statement, saying – “Shame on us if we take our eyes off this. Words must transfer into action. This is a bi-partisan matter.” He quoted Martin Luther King who said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” Kerry said that it is time for Sr. General Than Shwe to step aside. Kerry said he had worked with Senator Mitch McConnell on Burma and there has now been years and years of oppression with the junta laying on excuses. He spoke of “their deceptions and their lies.”
Senator John Kerry: “Now with this Saffron Revolution (referring to the saffron colored robes worn by the Buddhist monks), this is the second time in 20 years that this has happened and it has taken a human toll. In 1988, everyone spoke up, and then everyone lost focus. This time it is going to take a strategy or policy which has focus and applies on-going pressure.”
Kerry said the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy on Burma, Mr. Ibriham Gambari had gone to Burma for a few days, and “left Burma without any sense of tangible process.” Kerry said the sanctions need to be multilateral. He mentioned that “four of us met with the Chinese ambassador on this issue. The generals in a bunker (their new capital Naypyidaw) in a bunker of a country are surviving because of China. The killing has to stop.”
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is the primary voice for reform in Burma. She said the Burmese junta “has effectively minimized the effect of sanctions by playing investors off against each other. Many of the largest investors are unwilling to go beyond words. It is a difficult balancing act for Burma’s neighbors. It is our job to get a balance of sanctions and engagement.” She mentioned the role of China and India as major trading partners of Burma, and said that one third of Thailand’s natural gas supply comes from Burma.
Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA), two well-known supporters of the democracy movement in Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, then presented their individual statements. McConnell said that unilateral sanctions have almost never worked in Burma as China, India and Thailand have adapted to the permanent condition in Burma. He said no one is interested in applying real pressure, as it would be bad for business. He commented, “The ambivalence of India is surprising. The Europeans are somewhat better. The Burmese regime is a pariah regime like Iraq (was) and Iran is. The sanctions will only have bite if China, India and Thailand co-operate. We should all continue to pressure to bring this regime to its knees.”
Diane Feinstein related her long involvement, over ten years, with the Burmese democracy movement. In 1997 she co-authored legislation requiring the President to ban new investment in Burma. President Clinton signed the order in 1997 and it remains on the books today. In 2003, after the regime attempted to assassinate Suu Kyi in the incident now known as the Depayin Massacre of May 30, 2003, McConnell and Feinstein introduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, which placed a complete ban on imports from Burma. It was signed into law and renewed one year at a time for the last 4 years. Feinstein stressed that for these sanctions to work, all nations need to join the United States. She encouraged China to persuade Burma to stop the killing and free all political prisoners and sent a message to the people of Burma – “We are watching – and we will not give up our shared vision of a free and democratic Burma.”
Among the witnesses, Scott Marciel, Deputy Asst. Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Department of State, said that the Burmese military has insinuated itself into every fiber of the country. Senator Boxer spoke of the large loophole whereby Chevron was “grandfathered in” by the 1997 law, and doing a business worth 400-600m USD annually, “is the biggest revenue raiser used to fund the crackdown.” Boxer asked Mr. Marciel what other options might be available under the Patriot Act (to pressure Burma). Kerry said he heard “a slow walk diplomacy in an urgent situation” and asked what the State Department is doing as leverage.
The second witness, Micheal Green, former National Security Council Asia Director, worried about the international community falling back into complacency, spoke of the need for an arms embargo and to organize diplomacy better with a special envoy to talk to China, India and Thailand.
Aung Din, Co-founder of the USCB and a 1988 veteran, updated on how on 25 September 25 alone, a hundred dead bodies were counted at the Rangoon General Hospital. The official count from the junta was 10 dead, including the Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai who was shot point blank and died as a citizen journalist was filming. Aung Din described soldiers searching house to house with photos in hand and the monks under arrest in shackles and on hunger strike.
Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, who used to be an aide to the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an early advocate for change in Burma, said that the junta’s going after the monks crosses a line and they will rue the day. He argued for more focused sanctions but declined to go into details in a public setting. Aung Din added that “the Burmese people are sick of UN envoys. The junta knows how to trick and trip these envoys. He (Mr. Razali, the former UN Envoy) comes back saying he saw a light at the end of the tunnel but it is a fire.” In response to questions, Aung Din also replied that there is no real mutiny among the Burmese army, as some analysts have suggested. He complained about Ban Ki-moon’s “bad use of language” during the height of the clampdown, when Mr. Ban urged all sides to avoid provocation. “We are the people beat upon, and we are to avoid provocation?” Aung Din asked.
Events since the Senate Hearing:
Mr. Ibriham Gambari is again in Asia, but the U.S. is urging him to go to Burma again as soon as possible. Even as Mr. Gambari was in Burma, the junta was busy arresting people, and arrests are continuing. At least one dissident has died of torture in prison. The international community seems again to have settled into complacency. The Burmese junta’s air force chief was in Russia allegedly buying drones and other aircraft. In a Congressional Hearing, the head of the Voice of America Burmese Service, Than Lwin Htun, stressed that “the only way it is normal is that repression continues.” Meanwhile the junta is holding mass rallies in support of its own policies, which the population is forced to attend, and appears so confident as to hold a state funeral for its number four man, Prime Minister Soe Win, who died of leukemia.