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

Andrea Gittleman, JD on June 23, 2011

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

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

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

The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) submitted testimony for the record which highlighted the lack of positive change following elections in Burma last November. CHRO noted the increased reprisals and militarization in and around Chin State directly following the elections. Perhaps most shockingly, CHRO indicated that Zaw Min Oo, a Burmese military commander who was implicated in serious human rights violations against the people 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, Zaw Min Oo is now the Minister of Security and Border Affairs in a region he has terrorized for so long. CHRO’s testimony highlighted the fact that an election that ushers human rights violators to positions of power is not a shift towards democracy but a codification of military dominance.

The takeaway from the testimony of the three witnesses is that the US government can do significantly more in its effort to support democracy and human rights in Burma. The US administration can and should use more vigorous leadership in its effort to establish an international Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes in Burma. The US should also fully implement financial and banking sanctions against the regime, and ensure that humanitarian support is accessible and transparent. 

PHR is hopeful that the US will implement the advice given by the witnesses and will continue to advocate for these necessary policy changes.

Places: Burma