Human Rights in Burma

W. Patrick Murphy
Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma 
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Washington, DC
February 28, 2013

Mr. Chairman, I very much appreciate your invitation and I welcome the sustained interest of this Commission and its members in Burma. Congress has been instrumental in shaping our policy over the years and has been a valued partner of this Administration in implementing a principled engagement with Burma. This has yielded an unprecedented transition in a country that until recently was characterized by a half century of intractable authoritarian rule. It is an honor to appear before a commission named for the late Congressman Lantos, a strong advocate for democracy and human rights in Burma, and with whom I had the privilege of collaborating in the 1990s on these efforts.

Mr. Chairman, we have entered a new era of relations between the United States and Burma. Over the past two years, President Thein Sein’s government has undertaken an unexpected and ambitious agenda of reform. Over two decades, the United States and the international community labored for the freedom of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners. Now, she and others from her previously banned National League of Democracy serve in parliament and former prisoners of conscience play a central role in the transition to democracy. Her visit to Washington last September to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, a ceremony that included one of Burma’s most senior government ministers, spoke not only of her extraordinary courage and journey, but also of unwavering U.S. support for the aspirations of the Burmese people in pursuing democracy and basic human rights.

The Burmese Government has taken other significant steps. Parliament has established worker rights. The government has relaxed media censorship, outlawed forced labor, and taken steps to eliminate child soldiers. These measures respond directly to our longstanding concerns, and Burmese authorities have welcomed international advice and assistance along the way.

The U.S. Government, in partnership with Congress, has responded to these reforms to recognize and encourage further progress. We elevated our diplomatic ties by exchanging Ambassadors. We reestablished a USAID Mission in Rangoon to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; promote transparent governance; advance peace and reconciliation; meet humanitarian needs; and improve health and livelihoods. With recent Congressional legislation, we support the reengagement of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the IMF to address wide-spread poverty. We also modified our sanctions regime, transitioning to a more calibrated approach that allows U.S. business and nongovernmental organizations to apply their high standards in bringing responsible investment and American ingenuity to the reform effort.

In November 2012, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma. He affirmed U.S. support for democracy and freedom, and emphasized the centrality of human rights to our bilateral relationship. Recognizing progress there, he also expressed our unwavering support for the aspirations of all the people of Burma.

However, as the President also clearly expressed, we are not under any illusion that this transition is complete. Burma is at the very beginning of an arduous journey. The country has faced internal conflict since World War II, suffered fifty years of military rule, and fallen far behind even the poorest of its neighbors. We have, however, an historic opportunity to help Burma solidify its progress and strengthen the hand of those seeking further reform, so that the process becomes irreversible.

Indeed, President Obama’s visit to Burma catalyzed further reform. The Burmese Government committed to international standards on human rights, good governance, nonproliferation, transparency, and trafficking in persons. Many of these commitments have already yielded positive results, including improved international humanitarian access to conflict areas, dialogue with armed ethnic groups, and greater freedom of association.

We will also express a strong and consistent voice where progress has yet to be achieved. Burma must deepen efforts to fully respect human rights, end internal conflict, address constitutional deficiencies, broaden a top-down reform process to embrace the participation of women, ethnic minorities, and rural Burmese; promote religious tolerance, improve social services, address land rights, and meet international standards on transparency and anti-corruption. These efforts require significant international support and vigilance, and we maintain strong coordination with our partners in Rangoon, at the United Nations, and in capitals around the world.

One of Burma’s most significant challenges is achieving the national unity that has eluded the country since independence. Preliminary ceasefires with armed groups have yet to address underlying political grievances. Burma faces ongoing conflict in its northern Kachin State following the collapse of an uneasy peace. An uptick in violence between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army was accompanied by disturbing reports of human rights abuses. We have pressed for humanitarian access to displaced populations and for a dialogue aimed at achieving peace. While positive signs of such access and dialogue are emerging, both sides must overcome deep mistrust, and understand that conflict causes unacceptable suffering and threatens the country’s opportunity for a new beginning.

Equally challenging to Burma’s national unity is unresolved communal violence in Rakhine State. Widespread poverty has threatened livelihoods, including for ethnic Rakhine, induced a sense of insecurity, and exacerbated tensions. There is no excuse for violence, however, or persecution of the stateless Rohingya. Dire conditions there and in Bangladesh have caused many Rohingya to flee, often by sea, a frequently fatal undertaking. The central Government of Burma has taken steps to restore basic security and appointed an investigative commission aimed at longer-term solutions. These steps are a departure from the practices of the former regime, but we nonetheless consistently urge reconciliation and full protection of all rights, including citizenship. We also continue to press the government to facilitate humanitarian access to displaced populations. To do anything less could also threaten Burma’s broader reform process.

Mr. Chairman, these kinds of challenges speak to our need to remain calibrated. Although we have eased sanctions and pursued normalized relations to support reform, we have maintained underlying authorities as an insurance policy against backsliding. We continue to target those who interfere with the transition, abuse human rights, or perpetuate military trade with North Korea. In addition, we seek to ensure that increased private foreign investment in Burma complements, rather than contradicts, reform.

To encourage Burma’s armed forces to improve their record on human rights and relinquish inordinate influence on the economy, our easing does not yet apply to military-owned companies. We nonetheless hear from a range of Burmese stakeholders who urge us to engage the armed forces to build support for the reform agenda. In line with U.S. law and in consultation with Congress, we will promote reformist values within the Burmese armed forces that are consistent with a professional military subordinate to civilian authority. This is essential to seeing reform succeed. Deeper engagement, however, will require a severing of military ties with North Korea and a firm commitment to democracy.

Mr. Chairman, in the past, Burma’s military regime met challenges with brutal force and repression. The reform efforts of the current government, however, offer an important opportunity for a broad range of Burmese—in and out of government, and even from among the exile community—to participate in a process that shows promise for improving rights, transitioning to full democracy, and achieving genuine national unity.

Assistance from the international community is critical for the success of this process and our policy seeks to ensure that reform becomes irreversible. Burma also faces a number of significant milestones that are closely linked to the success of reform. In 2014, Burma will assume its first rotation as ASEAN chair, a prominent leadership role in tackling complex regional issues and in engaging the Pacific powers. Also next year, Burma will undertake its first census in decades, the results of which will shape its political and economic landscape for years to come. And, in 2015, the country has its first opportunity in the post-military regime era to hold multiparty national elections that adhere to international standards.

The United States will continue to support Burma in these and other efforts, and in doing so, will continue to elevate human rights as a central component of our bilateral relationship. We deeply appreciate the strong partners that we have found within Congress on the range of issues related to Burma, and we look forward to continuing this important partnership. With that, Mr. Chairman, I would be happy to join my close collaborator, Assistant Secretary Posner, in answering any questions from the Commission.