U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

U.S. Department of State
95/09/07 Testimony: Kent Wiedemann on policy toward Burma
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Statement of
Kent Wiedemann
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

September 7, 1995

Before the House Committee on International Relations
Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee

U.S. Policy Toward Burma

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee on behalf of the Department of State. I am pleased to discuss with you today our common concerns about the situation in Burma and explore how we can best advance U.S. interests there.


The release of Aung San Suu Kyi July 10 was a dramatic development in Burma. After many years of determined effort by the United States and the international community, the democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was released after nearly six years of house arrest. As the courageous hero of the opposition forces in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has earned the support of her people and the respect and admiration of the world for her determination and steadfastness in holding to her principles throughout the long years of house arrest.

Importantly, her release appears to be unconditional. She has been free to meet with her family, key supporters, the press and other visitors. In her meetings and statements, Aung San Suu Kyi has been remarkably conciliatory and magnanimous. She said she personally bears members of the SLORC no ill will and emphasizes her commitment to engage in a dialogue with them to seek national reconciliation. She wants to hold the SLORC to its avowed aim of creating a multi-party democracy. She has emphasized that the divisions in Burma are not insurmountable and has called for all the citizens of Burma to work together for the good of the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi has also called upon the international community to remain steadfast in support of democratic change for Burma. As she herself has pointed out, her release is only the beginning of what promises to be a long, slow process.

Aung San Suu Kyi's release does not diminish our serious concerns about human rights abuses in Burma or about the extent to which the drug trade remains ingrained in the political and economic life of the country. The Administration will continue to press the SLORC to make progress on these concerns. Our ultimate goal, one that we will continue to express clearly, remains the same: a stable democratic Burma that respects international norms. But we do not hold unrealistic expectations that the SLORC will transform itself overnight. Nor do we underestimate its intent to retain its grip on power and to dictate the pace of change.


In order to place Aung San Suu Kyi's release and re-emergence on the political scene into context, I would like to review briefly recent U.S. policy toward Burma.

In November 1994 Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Hubbard led the most senior U.S. delegation to visit Burma since 1988. The purpose of his mission, which was dispatched by the President, was to emphasize to the Burmese government the strong U.S. interest in progress on human rights, democracy, and counternarcotics. He made clear to senior SLORC officials that the United States wants to have better relations with Burma, but stressed any improvement must be based on progress in these critical areas of concern. He told them that U.S. relations with Burma could improve if the SLORC made progress in each of these areas, but would worsen if it did not.

Since Mr. Hubbard's visit, the SLORC has had a decidedly mixed record in responding to the "two roads" he outlined for U.S.-Burma relations.

The most dramatic positive step, of course, was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been able to confer on an almost daily basis with her chief advisers and to meet with National League for Democracy officials from throughout the country. She continues to address crowds in front of her residence on weekends. Some 130 other political prisoners also have been released, including Aung San Suu Kyi's close advisers Kyi Maung and Tin Oo.

However, the SLORC's actions fall far short of what is needed to end its abuses of its citizens' rights and thus to lay the foundation for improved relations with the United States. Aung San Suu Kyi's release must be followed by meaningful efforts to engage her and other members of the democracy movement in a process aimed at national reconciliation and the restoration of democracy. Thus far, unfortunately, the SLORC has sought to marginalize Aung San Suu Kyi, including keeping her from participating in the national constitutional convention set to reconvene in October. That convention has been manipulated by the SLORC to perpetuate authoritarian military rule. In addition, hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed, and the SLORC continues to arrest and sentence Burmese for the slightest political infraction. No indigenous organizations in Burma are allowed to function truly independently of the government. The International Committee of the Red Cross closed its office in Burma at the end of July after being unable to conclude a prison visit agreement with the SLORC. Egregious human rights violations continue. Burmese citizens are routinely rounded up and forced to carry military equipment, weapons and ammunition for the Burmese Army. In addition to being denied adequate food and water, these porters are often forced to work, at great risk, in areas of armed conflict. The SLORC also compels its citizens to carry out forced labor on roads, railroads and other infrastructure projects. We understand the SLORC recently introduced an internal decree calling for the suspension of forced labor by the army, but we have yet to see indications this is being enforced.

The SLORC's renewed military offensives against the Karen and Karenni minorities have led to serious humanitarian concerns and sent more than 10,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand. The refugees have put a substantial new burden on the Thai government and the NGO's which are providing assistance to them. The Burmese Army has also lent support to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which launched attacks on Karen refugee camps inside Thailand.

We cannot ignore the narcotics menace from Burma, which provides an estimated 60 percent of all heroin that scourges our communities. On the positive side, the SLORC followed through in February on its promise to allow U.S. Government experts to conduct a joint opium yield survey with the participation and assistance of the Burmese Government. The Burmese Army has also continued to attack the Shan United Army and taken significant casualties in an effort to regain control of the territory Khun Sa controls. Although not the main reason for the Burmese Army's attacks on the Shan United Army, this has had the welcome effect of disrupting Khun Sa's ability to traffic in drugs. The military attacks are part of an overall SLORC offensive to maintain national unity in the face of longstanding ethnic insurgencies. However, the SLORC must still take serious steps to deny legitimacy to other important narco-traffickers and to end corruption. The authorities in Rangoon are not likely to succeed in the fight against drugs unless they find a way to exercise legitimate authority in drug-producing areas, which principally are those controlled by ethnic insurgents.

In the past several years, the United States has steadily increased our pressure on the military regime in Rangoon. We suspended our own economic aid program and have urged other potential donors like Japan to limit strictly any development assistance to Burma. We do not provide GSP trade preferences and have decertified Burma as a narcotics cooperating country, which requires us by law to vote against assistance to Burma by

international financial institutions. This and our influence with other countries have in practice prevented most assistance to Burma from the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development

Bank. Neither Eximbank nor OPIC provides loans or insurance for American companies selling to or investing in Burma. The United States has not had an ambassador in Burma since 1990. On the international level, the Administration has strongly supported efforts in the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Labor Organization to condemn human and worker rights violations in Burma. We have urged the UN to play an active role in promoting democratic reform through a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. We refrain from selling arms to Burma and have an informal agreement with our G-7 friends and allies to do the same.

These measures have had an impact on the SLORC. While the regime has sought, increasingly, to open the country to foreign investment and tourism, our actions and those of like-minded countries have made clear that Burma can not fully rejoin the international community and gain the assistance it needs to develop its economy until fundamental changes are made.


When the President welcomed the announcement of Aung San Suu Kyi's release July 10, he made clear that the development would only mark a major milestone toward restoring peace and stability in Burma if it leads to a genuine process of political reconciliation and eventual installation of a democratically-elected government. The President also emphasized the seriousness of the unresolved human rights problems in Burma and the humanitarian concerns connected with ongoing military campaigns against ethnic insurgents. Our objective is to respond to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in a way to help the process of democratization and promote progress on other U.S. national interests.

We must let Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition take the lead in pursuing political reform and national reconciliation. We should offer steady and clear support, but obviously cannot dictate the outcome or pace of the dialogue. Rather, we want to look for ways to promote the dialogue that Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking with the government, as the next logical step in fostering national reconciliation and improving the political situation on which so much depends: the restoration of democratic civilian government and an end to human rights abuses, narcotics trafficking, and military attacks on unarmed members of ethnic groups.

In order to encourage a political dialogue to begin, the Administration will maintain the existing U.S. measures in place in Burma for the time being. In the absence of genuine political reforms in Burma, we do not believe it is appropriate to resume development assistance, restore GSP benefits or resume Eximbank and OPIC programs. Of greatest impact, we will also continue to oppose lending from the international financial institutions and seek, with other friendly governments, to maintain our informal arms embargo.


To underscore our support for Aung San Suu Kyi's call for a genuine dialogue toward national reconciliation, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright will visit Burma tomorrow after leading the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. She also will travel to Jakarta and Manila.

Ambassador Albright's principal objectives will be to convey U.S. views of the situation in Burma to the SLORC in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi's release and to reaffirm U.S. support for human rights and democratization. She also will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, other senior Burmese government officials, and representatives of UN agencies operating in Burma, such as UNICEF, UNDP and UNDCP.

In her meetings with the SLORC, Ambassador Albright's message will be clear and direct: the United States warmly welcomes the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is essential the SLORC begin a dialogue with her, other democracy leaders and the ethnic minorities.

In her meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has welcomed the visit, Ambassador Albright will ask for the Nobel laureate's evaluation of the situation in Burma and the outlook for progress toward democracy and respect for human rights.

Make no mistake: Ambassador Albright's visit does not represent a warming of our relations with the SLORC. She will carry a tough message, and we have so informed key Asian and European capitals. We have strongly urged other countries to continue to limit assistance to Burma and to join us in maintaining a ban on IFI lending to Burma until the GOB makes significant progress on democracy and human rights.

We believe that Ambassador Albright's visit provides an excellent opportunity for the SLORC to signal whether it intends to move forward toward reconciliation and democracy. We hope the SLORC will realize that Burma's prospects for prosperity and stability depend on the extent to which it respects the wishes of its people by restoring democratic government and the rule of law.

In her meetings with representatives of UN agencies operating in Burma, Ambassador Albright will look for ways the U.S. can support the work of the important UN programs there. In support of these goals, the Administration proposes to continue U.S. support and funding for UNDP and UNDCP activities in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, who worked for the UN in New York at one time, has endorsed the development and counternarcotics objectives of these organizations. In her first press conference, she said she strongly supports the UN being allowed to play an important role in all countries, including her own.

We note that UNDP's programs have been thoroughly revamped and redirected at meeting the urgent needs of the poorest Burmese. UNDCP, meanwhile, is working to address the scourge of the drug trade, an affliction for Burmese citizens as well as American. We share Aung San Suu Kyi's view that these and other UN activities in Burma have a beneficial effect in the country.


The Administration believes that the visit of Ambassador Albright is an important opportunity for us to stress our concerns to the SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi. As it becomes clearer how the SLORC will respond to the olive branch offered by Aung San Suu Kyi and the visit of Ambassador Albright, the Administration's reaction will be considered and appropriate. I have already indicated the Administration will keep in place the existing measures with respect to Burma for the time being. The Administration, however, also needs the flexibility to respond to what is clearly a changing situation in Burma.

In the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi's release, we do not want to restrict our options. Increased sanctions should remain one of those options. But if we are to be successful in our efforts to encourage dialogue in Burma, we must do more than penalize the SLORC at every turn. We must also make clear to the SLORC that punitive measures can be avoided if they continue to take positive steps, such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. What the Administration will do in the coming months on Burma depends on the SLORC. The Administration needs the flexibility to respond appropriately.

While the sanctions legislation under consideration in Congress represents a serious effort to address continuing violations of human rights in Burma, we believe it would be counterproductive to impose sanctions now, in the wake of the Nobel laureate's release. While international pressure helped produce Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom, we must now allow time for a dialogue of national reconciliation to begin before seeking to raise the pressure, which could have consequences opposite to those we seek.

We have discussed multilateral sanctions with interested countries, and there is no support for them against Burma, particularly in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Furthermore, we are concerned that some sanctions provisions, which call for actions against third countries, might violate our obligations under the WTO. We would not want to be required to take punitive action against countries on whom we need to rely to make common cause in other ways on Burma.

Second, we believe Congress should support continued U.S. funding for UNDP and UNDCP programs in Burma. As I have already indicated, the Administration believes these programs help needy Burmese and address the opium menace without strengthening the SLORC.

Finally, and while I recognize that this hearing is not focused on narcotics matters, I need to mention that the Administration believes Congress should not limit funding of U.S. counternarcotics programs with Burma. These programs are already very limited -- as is appropriate. We believe that the minimal efforts now underway do not undermine our human rights goals.


Mr. Chairman, Congress and the Administration share the same objectives in Burma. We want to see a dialogue of national reconciliation that will help lead to a new democratic future for Burma. We want an end to human rights abuses and the installation of a democratically-elected government in Rangoon. We want an end to trafficking in heroin. Our hope is that we will look back on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as a turning point in Burma's history. Thoughtful, reasoned measures by the U.S. Government can help make these hopes a reality.

I look forward to continuing to work with the Committee and other Members of Congress on these and other issues.

Thank you.


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