Witnesses at Burma Hearing Give US Advice on Strengthening Support for Democracy and Human Rights

The Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the HouseForeign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Wednesday entitled “PiercingBurma’s Veil of Secrecy: The Truth Behind the Sham Election and the DifficultRoad Ahead.” The hearing was notable because it was the first time that DawAung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, addressed theCommittee. Freed from house arrest last November, the Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke to the Subcommittee members through a pre-recorded video. An empty seatwas reserved for Aung San Suu Kyi between hearing witnesses Aung Din, ExecutiveDirector of the US Campaign for Burma, and Dr. Chris Beyrer, Director of theJohns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights. 

During her video testimony, Aung San Suu Kyi highlighted theimportance of the Human Rights Council resolution on Burma from March of thisyear, which noted consistent human rights violations throughout Burma. Suu Kyifocused in particular on the importance of an independent judiciary, the plightof political prisoners, and the value of a Commission of Inquiry. Suu Kyi wasunequivocal in her support for a Commission, which she said would exist not asa tribunal but as a truth-seeking mechanism that would uncover informationabout past crimes and stop future abuses. 

Aung Din highlighted the need to fully implement all thetools included in the 2008 JADE Act, including yet unutilized targetedfinancial sanctions. Dr. Beyrer discussed the health and human rightscatastrophe in Burma, drawing on his extensive work in the region. Dr. Beyrerwas instrumental in researching PHR’s recent report on human rights violationsin Chin State, western Burma. During his testimony he called attention to theregime’s violence against ethnic nationalities and reported on the regime’ssystematic use of rape as a weapon of war. The current conflict in Kachin Stateis but one example – since June 9 there have been 18 reported rapes of womenand girls, some of whom were also killed. 

The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) submitted testimony for the record which highlighted the lack of positive changefollowing elections in Burma last November. CHRO noted the increased reprisalsand militarization in and around Chin State directly following the elections.Perhaps most shockingly, CHRO indicated that Zaw Min Oo, a Burmese militarycommander who was implicated in serious human rights violations against thepeople of Chin State, was one of the military appointees to the Chin State Legislature.Despite his record of abuses, many of which were captured in PHR’s report, ZawMin Oo is now the Minister of Security and Border Affairs in a region he hasterrorized for so long. CHRO’s testimony highlighted the fact that an electionthat ushers human rights violators to positions of power is not a shift towardsdemocracy but a codification of military dominance.

The takeaway from the testimony of the three witnesses isthat the US government can do significantly more in its effort to supportdemocracy and human rights in Burma. The US administration can and should usemore vigorous leadership in its effort to establish an international Commissionof Inquiry to investigate crimes in Burma. The US should also fully implementfinancial and banking sanctions against the regime, and ensure thathumanitarian support is accessible and transparent. 

PHR is hopeful that the US will implement the advice givenby the witnesses and will continue to advocate for these necessary policychanges.

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