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With Progress Stalled and Backtracking in Burma, Crowley, Chabot, Franks, McGovern Call On President Obama to Insist on Democratic Reforms, End to Abuses
Ahead of President’s Trip to Burma, Members Send Letter Calling on Obama to Stop Advancing Relations and Make Clear That Failure to Enact Democratic Reforms and Ongoing Brutalities Jeopardizes U.S.-Burma Relations
Members State Upcoming Election Not “Free, Fair or Credible” Because “the Burmese people can’t elect a leader of their own choosing”
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Reps. Joe Crowley (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Trent Franks (R-AZ), and Jim McGovern (D-MA), along with 40 other bipartisan members of the House, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use his upcoming trip to Burma to insist the Burmese government stop stalling on key democratic reforms, including ending ongoing human rights abuses and ensuring credible, free and fair elections, in order for U.S.-Burma relations to move ahead.
In the letter, the members express deep concern over stalled democratic reforms in four core areas, including an absence of reforms that would ensure Burma’s upcoming elections and future government are credible, broken promises on human rights concerns including the release of political prisoners and detainees, an erosion of press freedom, and the government’s catering to hatred and its ongoing role in serious human rights abuses against ethnic or religious minorities, including the attacks on the Kachin and Shan and violence against Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State.
“The United States should not continue to support significant advancements in our relations under these conditions. The constitution must be amended to ensure that the Burmese people can choose their own leader, attacks on ethnic minorities must come to an end, and the government and military must responsibly participate in national reconciliation efforts,” wrote the lawmakers in the letter. They added the United States should add individuals complicit in abuses to the specially designated nationals individualized sanctions list.
The letter continues: “These issues are directly within the power of the current government and military to change, and unless they do so Burma will not be making the transition that was promised to the world and that the Burmese people deserve.”
In August, Crowley, Chabot, Franks and McGovern led a group of members in sending a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry voicing concern over the deteriorating situation and urging the U.S. to not make further concessions unless serious progress is made by the Burmese government.
Earlier this year, the same members introduced Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act, legislation that would prevent the United States from providing or expanding military assistance to Burma’s Armed Services until benchmarks on human rights and defense reforms are met by the Burmese military. These benchmarks include free and fair elections, reform of the military-dominated constitution, an end to human rights abuses committed against the Burmese people, and the establishment of civilian oversight of the armed forces.
The full text of the letter to President Obama is below:
November 7, 2014
Dear President Obama,
We are deeply concerned about the situation in Burma, including stalled reforms, back-tracking on core commitments and the government’s targeting of ethnic and religious minorities with shocking policies of hate and discrimination. We strongly urge you to insist during your second trip to the country that these issues be addressed and make clear that the United States will not support full normalization of our relations absent genuine change.
With respect to stalled reforms, we understand the current government claims it will hold elections in late 2015. Yet, over a year before the election and despite the fact that President Thein Sein’s own party dominates the committee that would initiate Constitutional changes, the military-backed Constitution continues to arbitrarily bar the leader of the opposition party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from being eligible to compete on equal footing for the Presidency. This has created a situation in which the election cannot by definition be fully free, fair or credible because the Burmese people can’t elect a leader of their own choosing. This same constitution also guarantees 25% of seats in parliament lie in the control of the Commander in Chief. This cannot be the basis of a truly democratic society.
We are also deeply concerned about the increasing number of political prisoners and detainees. President Thein Sein and his advisors have made a clear commitment to the international community that they will release all prisoners. Yet, the number of political prisoners has steadily increased since the beginning of this year, while those who have been released are still forced to serve suspended sentences – a situation which discourages them from participating in politics because they could be returned to prison, for decades, at any moment.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that the press freedom is being eroded. Long sentences were recently handed down to investigative journalists, and a climate of fear is growing amongst those who wish to report on key issues relating to the Burmese economy and society. This has led the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for the country to say "in recent months many of my interlocutors have seen the shrinking of that space for civil society and the media.”
Further, we are concerned about the government’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, as attacks against the Kachin, Shan and others illustrate. Tens of thousands, including Christian Kachin, remain stuck in stark internal displacement camps where the government refuses to allow unimpeded international humanitarian aid. Land grabs are also endemic and are a clear threat to change.
And, it has become clearer than ever that Thein Sein’s government is provoking and catering to anti-Muslim violence, circulating a draft plan that would force even more Rohingya Muslim men, women and children into internment camps. The draft plan’s clearly stated intention of interning the Rohingya follows violence that has already displaced approximately 140,000 people over the past two years. This is not an isolated issue but the latest in a series of decisions by Thein Sein’s government impacting minority Muslims – including proposing discriminatory laws to parliament, maintaining restrictions on even the most basic freedoms like movement and marriage, and still preventing Doctors Without Borders from operating freely and fully to provide life-saving care to people with no other services. This has now become a clear pattern interrupted mainly by promises, but insufficient action, to end the discrimination and violence. That has resulted in horrifying images of emaciated and dying children.
The United States should not continue to support significant advancements in our relations under these conditions. The constitution must be amended to ensure that the Burmese people can choose their own leader, attacks on ethnic minorities must come to an end, and the government and military must responsibly participate in national reconciliation efforts. Urgently, the Burmese government must put an immediate end to its policy of keeping the minority Rohingya population stateless, displaced, and in a constant state of humanitarian crisis.
The United States should continue to engage diplomatically, but must recognize and act upon these important issues.
We urge that these issues remain at the top of your agenda in Burma and that you seek specific steps to resolve them. These issues are directly within the power of the current government and military to change, and unless they do so Burma will not be making the transition that was promised to the world and that the Burmese people deserve.
James P. McGovern
Joseph R. Pitts
Peter T. King
Luis V. Gutiérrez
Gerald E. Connolly
Carolyn B. Maloney
Chris Van Hollen
Peter A. DeFazio
Eleanor Holmes Norton
James R. Langevin
James P. Moran
Charles B. Rangel
Bobby L. Rush
Nydia M. Velázquez
John F. Tierney
Gregory W. Meeks
Hakeem S. Jeffries
David N. Cicilline
Christopher H. Smith
Edward R. Royce
Rosa L. DeLauro
Stephen F. Lynch
Michael M. Honda
Marlin A. Stutzman
William R. Keating
Eliot L. Engel