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Burma: Hopes for Democracy and Human Rights Situation Squashed as Democratic Movement Leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, Celebrates her 58th Birthday Under Arrest

Statement by Tom Malinowski to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

June 19, 2003

Mr. Chairman, Congressman Lantos: Thank you for holding this briefing, for your leadership on Burma, and for giving me the opportunity to testify. If I could summarize my views in one sentence it would be this: The conduct of the Burmese government is beyond the pale, but the situation in Burma is not beyond our capacity to influence, so long as the United States and its partners around the world act in concert and in time.

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We are here today, of course, primarily because of the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her party on May 30th. Because the Burmese government makes it virtually impossible to conduct independent investigations of incidents such as this, there is much we do not know, including the precise number of people who were killed that night. But there is much we can say to piece together what happened, from eyewitness testimony and from diplomatic sources in Rangoon -- especially the U.S. embassy, which, to its credit, sent staff to the scene of the attack.

We know that Aung San Suu Kyi had been traveling through northern and central Burma gathering large crowds at every stop, urging dialogue with the government and a peaceful transition to democracy. This evidence of her continued popularity unsettled a regime that is deeply insecure about its own survival. We know that at many of these stops, her supporters were harassed by members of the Union Solidarity Development Association, a government-created organization that has increasingly taken on a paramilitary character (and which has aptly been described as the "Fedayeen of Burma").

Every independent observer agrees that on the evening of May 30th, Suu Kyi's party was attacked by armed thugs associated with the USDA. According to some eyewitnesses, police were present, as were common criminals released from prison for the purpose of taking part in the attack. As the State Department has put it, this was a premeditated ambush. The Burmese government has admitted to four deaths; others have reported many more. U.S. embassy staff found evidence at the scene of significant violence. Given the Burmese military's role in creating and guiding the USDA, it is fair to conclude that the country's leadership ordered the attack, and to hold it politically and criminally accountable for the deaths of unarmed members of Suu Kyi's party.

We also know, of course, that Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military following the attack along with a large number - we do not know precisely how many - of her party officials and supporters. The military claims she is being held under "protective custody." That is, of course, a surreal and Orwellian claim, since clearly, the only people Suu Kyi needs to be protected from are the people who have taken her into custody. According to U.N. envoy Ismail Razali, the only outsider who has seen her, she is in fact being held under Article 10a of the Burmese criminal code, which permits the state to detain anyone it considers a security risk for up to five years without charge or trial.

I believe we should be even more concerned about the fate of the others who were arrested with Aung San Suu Kyi on and since May 30th. These men and women do not enjoy the relative protection from torture that comes with her prominence. The latest reports I've received suggest that the International Committee for the Red Cross will be given access to some of these detainees - although, significantly, the ICRC was yesterday denied access to Aung San Suu Kyi herself. But of course we cannot be certain that the ICRC will be given a full accounting of all detainees. Nor is there any way yet to confirm disturbing reports that eyewitnesses to the attack may have been silenced by the military by intimidation or far worse. The only protection these people really have is our determination to remember this incident and to hold those responsible accountable.

Quite rightly, governments around the world have condemned the attack on Suu Kyi and her party and demanded her immediate release. The Bush administration moved swiftly to mobilize a broad international response, including this week's unprecedented appeal to Burma from its neighbors in ASEAN. But there is a danger here, Mr. Chairman. If Suu Kyi is indeed released, the world may breathe a sigh of relief and say mission accomplished. Attention will turn elsewhere. Pressure on the Burmese government will ease. That is why we cannot confuse a return to the status quo of just last month with progress. We must press for an end to human rights abuses, the release of all detainees, and a resumption of a political dialogue in Burma that will lead to fundamental change.

The Burmese government has played this game before. It arrests Suu Kyi. A crisis ensues. It releases her. The illusion of progress is achieved. But the people of Burma continue to suffer. UN envoy Razali has had to expend much of his time and political capital negotiating Suu Kyi's release over the last several years, instead of pursuing his true objective - brokering negotiations leading to a genuine political settlement. In recent days, he has rightly urged the international community to maintain its focus on that goal.

This struggle is about much, much more than freedom for Suu Kyi and her political party. In fact, that is not at all what Suu Kyi herself has been sacrificing for all these years. It is about establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights for all the people of Burma. Those rights were systematically denied before May 30th and continue to be denied today.

The government continues to hold more than 1,300 political prisoners, including elected members of parliament. Though some 500 have been released since intermittent talks between the government and the NLD began in 2000, Burmese citizens have continued to be arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for the peaceful expression of their views. Torture of detainees is common; last year, the State Department reported at least three deaths in custody of political prisoners.

The military continues to use forced labor on a large scale. Villagers are compelled to work without pay on infrastructure and agricultural projects, as porters in army camps, and on the construction of temples. Children as young as seven are forced in many parts of the country to carry army supplies and to work on construction sites. In effect, Burma maintains the crudest form of command economy: When the military wants something built, it simply commands people to build it.

Perhaps the most horrific of the military's abuses are committed against civilians living in the country's ethnic minority areas. In recent years, the military has pursued a strategy of forcibly relocating minority villages in areas where ethnic activists and rebels are active, and in areas targeted for economic development and tourism. In the Shan and Karen states in particular, these relocations clearly amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and a million internally displaced persons. Burmese troops have burned villages, hospitals and schools in ethnic areas, conscripted villagers to perform forced labor, and executed suspected opponents of the regime. Shan human rights organizations have amply documented, and the State Department has confirmed, the systematic rape of women and girls in the Shan State by the Burmese military. Most of the documented rapes were committed by officers in front of their troops; a quarter resulted in death.

Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report on another tragic feature of this campaign of repression: the forced recruitment by the Burmese military of thousands of child soldiers, some as young as eleven. The Burmese military has a higher percentage of child soldiers than any military in the world - some 70,000 of its 350,000 man force may be children. These children are brutalized during training and forced to commit the worst abuses - including beatings, executions and massacres of civilians.

What can outsiders do to encourage an end to these abuses and meaningful political change in Burma?

Some believe the answer is very little, or even nothing at all. They point out that years of pressure from the United States and others have not eased repression in Burma.

I think it is true that change in Burma can only come from within. But I also think it is undeniable that pressure from the outside, including sanctions, has made a tangible difference. No, it has not brought democratic change. But without it, there is no question in my mind that Aung San Suu Kyi and her leading supporters would have been exiled, imprisoned, or killed years ago and her political movement shut down entirely. The Red Cross would not be in Burma visiting prisoners. U.N. envoy Razali would never have gotten in the door in Rangoon to begin work on a political settlement. In other words, international pressure has kept hope alive in Burma. Without it, there would be no hope.

I also agree with those who say that the Burmese government must feel pressure from many countries, not just one, before it can be convinced to compromise. But experience shows that multilateral pressure can best be mobilized if the United States is willing to lead. That's why I applaud President Bush for acting swiftly following the attack on Suu Kyi to expand the visa ban against Burmese officials and to freeze their assets.

The Senate also acted swiftly last week, approving by a vote of 97-1 legislation to ban Burmese imports to the United States. Though this appears on its face to be a broad economic sanction, I would argue that in the unique case of Burma, an import ban is a sanction that effectively and rather narrowly targets the leadership of the country. The vast majority of Burmese exports to the United States are garments produced in factories wholly or partly owned by the regime - and approximately a quarter of Burmese exports now go to the United States.

I hope the House of Representatives will act quickly as well, so that this legislation it can become law. That's what Congressman Lantos and Chairman Hyde have called for, and I urge all members to support them. You should not wait and see what happens in Burma. Indeed, you should recognize that it is the Burmese government that is now waiting to see what happens in the U.S. Congress. It will notice if you impose a price for its recent actions. It will just as surely notice if you do not act, and it will draw the appropriate conclusion either way.

Of course, it is also vital to mobilize the broadest possible international coalition for human rights in Burma. The EU has taken important steps already. This week's ASEAN statement was also a step forward, but also clearly not enough. Ambassador Razali has been pressing Burma's southeast Asian neighbors to abandon their traditional policy of non-interference in Burma's affairs. Interestingly, in a recent interview, he singled out Singapore as a country with important influence in Burma, both as a trading partner and as the country where Burma's leaders apparently keep their money. I would urge the Congress to ask some hard questions about Singapore's role when the administration sends the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement to the Hill.

It will also be vital to raise the profile of this issue in the United Nations. First of all, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinerho, should be urged to open an investigation into the events of May 30th. The Burmese government may or may not cooperate with such an investigation, but either way, it should know that the international community is not going to forget what happened.

Second, the United States and its partners should begin to explore the possibility of a Security Council resolution on Burma that would demand a return to dialogue and compel all nations to take concrete steps to press the regime. Given the depth of international outrage over the recent crackdown in Burma, I believe such a resolution can now realistically be pursued. This is, by the way, a key recommendation of a Council on Foreign Relations report on Burma released yesterday. More significantly, it is something that Ambassador Razali, in his role as UN envoy on Burma, has now urged, arguing that the prospect of Security Council action is something the Burmese government will stand up and notice above all else.

Perhaps most important, we need to maintain the intense focus on Burma that the recent crackdown has made possible. One of the advantages that the generals who rule Burma have over their critics in other countries is that the generals wake up every morning and worry about how to avoid change. Given all the world's many problems, it's hard for most of us to worry each day about how to promote change in this one country. In a sense, it isn't easy for us to match their dedication. But we have to do our best and try.

In just the last two weeks, tremendous progress has been made in mobilizing an effective and truly international effort to defend the rights of the Burmese people. This momentum must be sustained, not squandered. I hope the Congress will do its part to keep the spotlight on Burma bright and pressure on its government strong.