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Secretary of State Albright's trip to Asia: China, Indonesia and Thailand

Background briefing: China

During her visit to Beijing, Albright will lay the groundwork for Premier Zhu Rongji's summit meetings in Washington, D.C. in early April. Albright is expected to raise human rights issues brought up by President Clinton during his visit to China last year on which there has been no progress, and in some cases, major setbacks have occurred. These include:

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A Human Rights Watch report, September 1998

-- Release of political prisoners, including the hundreds still detained for their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. In the last few months, Beijing has released two prominent dissidents high on the Administration's list -- the journalist Gao Yu and Liu Nianchun, a labor rights organizer -- but there has been no progress in moving Beijing toward large-scale releases of political prisoners and arrests have continued with a renewed crackdown on dissent. In advance of the ten-year anniversary of the June 4th massacre, a decision to free remaining 1989 prisoners would be a major step forward.

-- Ratification of two UN human rights covenants. Under international pressure, including threats of critical resolutions at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, China has signed two important UN treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in October 1997, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 1998. The National People's Congress, which convenes in Beijing next week, has yet to ratify either treaty. Meanwhile, key rights guaranteed in the ICCPR, including the rights of free association, speech, assembly and religion, are being routinely violated and increasingly restricted. Albright may press for a commitment to ratify at least one of these treaties, and perhaps urge China to announce this in advance of Zhu's visit.

-- Review of the sentences of convicted "counterrevolutionaries." In March 1997, the National People's Congress abolished provisions of the criminal code used for decades to punish so-called "counterrevolutionaries," with sentences given of from ten years to life. These provisions were replaced with new crimes of "endangering state security," that are just broad and arbitrary in scope and definition. During her previous visits to Beijing, Albright urged the Chinese authorities to review the sentences of more than 2,000 individuals convicted under the "counterrevolutionary" statutes -- an appeal Clinton repeated last June -- with a view toward releasing many of them.

-- Tibet: The Administration has been disappointed by the lack of progress on Tibet. In recent months, the Chinese authorities have intensified a "reeducation campaign" in Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, expelling supporters of the Dalai Lama and those suspected of favoring independence for Tibet. During a visit to Tibet and Beijing last September, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was denied access to the Panchen Lama, the nine-year-old child who has been held in an unknown location since 1995. Harold Koh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor and Human Rights, also asked permission to see him during the recent bilateral "dialogue" on human rights, but was refused. There are continuing reports of peaceful pro- independence activists being detained, as well as torture, ill-treatment, beatings and deaths in prison.

-- Reeducation through labor: According to official Chinese government figures, more than 230,000 citizens as of 1997 were held in some 280 labor camps throughout China, sentenced by the police and local security officials to "reeducation through labor." Under this highly arbitrary system, anyone can be sentenced for up to three years, without charge or trial, and the term can be extended. There is no right to counsel or a hearing. This provision is used frequently against political, labor and religious activists as well as to punish common criminals, migrant workers, and others accused of "disturbing the social order." Work in the camps is often difficult under harsh conditions. In legal seminars with the U.S., the European Union, and others, some Chinese officials have openly complained about the system and suggested it should be abolished.

US Policy:

Prior to leaving for Beijing, Albright told a Senate hearing that no decision had yet been made to take the lead in sponsoring a resolution critical of China's human rights practices at the UN Commission on Human Rights which convenes soon in Geneva for its annual meeting (from March 22 to April 30). Bipartisan members of Congress have been pressing for such a decision, which will be made by President Clinton. On February 25, 1999 a resolution in the Senate calling for action in Geneva was adopted 99-0. Last year, for the first time since 1990, no resolution on China was introduced in Geneva. Neither the European Union (EU) nor the White House, in the weeks prior to Clinton's trip to China, wanted to antagonize Beijing's leaders by pressing for a resolution, and instead focused on "dialogue."

The U.S. held its first formal "dialogue" on human rights since 1994 this past January in Washington with a delegation of Beijing officials. The E.U. held its most recent "dialogue" session in Berlin, Germany earlier this month. But thus far, the "dialogues" have produced no tangible results, and though holding such talks may be useful, Human Rights Watch believes that pressure is also urgently needed. We strongly support a vigorous effort by the U.S. and other governments to push a resolution in Geneva as a minimal step.

WTO will also be on Albright's agenda. We believe that China's possible entry into the World Trade Organization should be subject to Congressional scrutiny and a vote. (Legislation was introduced this week in the House requiring Congressional approval of a decision by the President to admit China into the WTO). Without the rule of law, greater transparency, a free press and an independent judiciary it will be difficult if not impossible to effectively guarantee and monitor Beijing's compliance with commitments made to honor contracts, end intellectual copyright violations, or take other steps to open its economy under a WTO agreement.

Background briefing: Indonesia

The main issues confronting US policy in Indonesia are East Timor; communal violence, social unrest, and the spectre of "disintegration"; and the elections scheduled for June (parliamentary) and August (presidential).


One priority of the State Department is to ensure a free and fair election in June, including by providing technical assistance, monitoring support, and aid to various parts of Indonesia's civil society. The most important obstacles to a fair election are violence and social unrest, and three kinds of violence are possible. One is communal violence deliberately provoked by elements within the military (and some say the Soeharto family) who wish to see a return to the authoritarian system of the past. A second is violence resulting from clashes between a disastrously-conceived civilian militia recruited by the army to aid in election security and various students and citizens' groups. And a third is social unrest resulting from the combination of the economic crisis and large numbers of unemployed youths easily mobilized for any purpose.

The likelihood of election-related violence poses a policy dilemma, because if Indonesia is to have a democratic transition, it needs to reduce the role of the army in politics. But if civil unrest breaks out, the army is the first force on call. (The Indonesian police are part of the military and are weak and corrupt to boot.) The U.S. is seen by many democratic forces in Indonesia as having been associated for far too long with a military responsible for systematic human rights abuses. If it is now championing democratic change, it should probably use the army's shattered prestige as an opportunity to help strengthen civilian institutions. But its concern about having a safe election could shift its attention back to the army. Secretary Albright will have to address this conundrum.

East Timor

On East Timor, the U.S. has to decide what stance it will take on the extraordinary developments of the last six weeks that have put East Timor on a hasty course toward independence. President Habibie announced on January 27 that if the East Timorese did not accept his plan for far-ranging autonomy, he would submit the "second option" of independence to Indonesia's highest legislative body. Events moved swiftly thereafter, and Habibie was talking about letting East Timor go its own way by June. This brought accusations from within East Timor and abroad that Indonesia had caused this problem in the first place, it could not just abandon responsibility for the territory. The departure of Indonesian troops, who have armed pro-government militias, would almost certainly result in something approaching civil war, and the abrupt departure of Indonesian civil servants, including teachers and health professionals, would result in administrative chaos. East Timorese are now asking for a transition period and a vote of some kind on their own future.

The U.S. has to decide whether it will commit to both large-scale assistance and a U.N. peacekeeping force that may be the only thing preventing the place from serious civil unrest. In the short term, the US needs to work with other allies to persuade the Indonesian government to disarm pro-integration civilian militias in East Timor, a step that would have to precede any formal disarmament of FALINTIL, the guerrilla force. It needs to get Indonesian agreement to a U.N. field office in Dili with a human rights monitoring capacity.

Political and Communal Violence

The developments in East Timor have given a new impetus to pro-independence movements in other places in Indonesia. In Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, major military operations are underway to quash an armed group called the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM). Its support has increased since Soeharto's fall in part because the Habibie government has not responded to the demand of Acehnese for the prosecution of abuses that took place during major counterinsurgency operations in the early 1990s. The rebels have also been responsible for serious abuses, but the new military operations, as abusive as the past ones, are only fueling support for them. The US could play a major role in supporting prosecutions for past abuses.

In Irian Jaya, the province that occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea, a "national dialogue" on the province's political status is due to begin on February 27. (Irian Jaya, like East Timor, has a history different from the rest of Indonesia, since it remained a Dutch colony after Indonesian independence until 1963 and was "integrated" with Indonesia after a fraudulent UN-supervised vote of self determination in 1969.) The question is what the Indonesian government's response will be if the participants in the dialogue demand independence.

Communal violence has wracked Indonesia since Soeharto fell, and there is strong evidence in some cases that the violence was provoked. The riots in Jakarta in May 1998, largely targeted at ethnic Chinese, were a case in point. One of the most serious outbreaks is still going on in Ambon, in the South Molucca islands just east of the island of Sulawesi, between Christians and Muslims, with over 100 dead since the violence erupted on January 19. Each time one of these incidents breaks out, communal tensions in other parts of Indonesia increase, and the potential for additional violence increases. (Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim and only 8 percent Christian, but in many parts of eastern Indonesia, Christians are dominant.) While the army's image declines still further with each of these episodes, as it is seen as unable or unwilling to stop the carnage, it is also the army that benefits, since people in the affected areas see a strengthened army presence as the only guarantor of security.

The most important step Secretary Albright can take is to demand that President Habibie get much more serious that he has been thus far about following up on allegations and evidence of provocation in the violence that is tearing Indonesia apart.

Background briefing: Thailand

Women's Issues:

Albright is due to briefly visit Chiang Mai on the Thai-Burma border to assess the socio-economic conditions of migrant women. Thailand was home to an estimated 700,000 to one million clandestine migrant workers, mostly Burmese, before the Asian economic crisis. While the Thai government attempted to expel many of these after the downturn to make room in the labor market for unemployed Thai, the population of illegal immigrants remains in the hundreds of thousands. Women have come from Burma, Laos and Cambodia to work in the jobs the Thai now shun, such as fruit harvesting, construction, and domestic service. Some women also accompany their migrant husbands and may raise children on the site. Like all illegal migrants, they are subject to periodic police sweeps, in which children can be separated from their parents. Police may also demand payments from migrants in exchange for not arresting them. Extortion in immigration detention centers and police lock-ups is common. Migrant access to health care is also a major problem.

The issue of the commercial sex industry is also crucial. Historically, Thai brothels used to like to recruit from the northern Thai provinces as the women were considered especially attractive. Since the saturation of the Thai public with information on HIV/AIDS and prostitution, the ability of recruiters to find workers in Thailand has diminished. Thus, they have begun to search for workers in neighboring countries (Burma, Laos, Vietnam, China). Most of these women lack any kind of protection from the HIV infection and have little access to materials or information on HIV/AIDS (there is plenty in Thai but not in Burmese or other languages). In Chiang Mai, Albright might be asked what role the U.S. can play to effectively address the issue of trafficking, since Thai and other Asian women are also being trafficked into the U.S.

Thai/ASEAN/Burma relations:

Thai-Burma relations are currently at a low point as the result of the contest over the sovereignty of three islands in the Andaman Sea. Some conflict has taken place in the waters around the disputed islands and when Thai naval vessels have acted to protect Thai fishing boats. Also, Thailand has been playing the role of mediator between the European Union (EU) and ASEAN over the participation of Burma's foreign minister in the upcoming EU-ASEAN meeting on March 30 in Berlin. Some EU countries are strongly opposing any official Burmese participation. On March 8-9, Burmese Senior General Than Shwe is due to visit Bangkok to focus on narcotics production and trafficking. In her meetings with Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Albright will likely discuss relations with Burma and how the Thai government can be more energetic in pressing Rangoon to make major human rights improvements.