H.R. 4377 and Burma’s Human Rights Record

On April 2, 2014, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the “Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2014” or H.R. 4377. Ohio Congressman Steve Chabot, a Republican, sponsored the bill, and several other representatives from both sides of the aisle co-sponsored it.

H.R. 4377 places restrictions on U.S. military assistance to Burma, tying it to the country’s human rights record. It requires the Burmese government to, among other things, establish civilian oversight of the armed forces and address human rights abuses by the military.

The US Campaign for Burma has been ratcheting up Congressional support for the bill ahead of President Obama’s proposed trip to Burma in November, arguing that “on no account should the US government reward Burma’s backsliding on human rights by giving further US military aid to Burma’s army.”

At the UN General Assembly in September, Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin declared that “all major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar”. This was aimed at having Burma removed from the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda.

The people of Burma, especially those in ethnic minority regions who continue to suffer abuses at the hands of the military, beg to differ. An indication of how sincere the government is about addressing human rights issues can be seen in the recent reshuffle of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, a government appointed body. The Commission caused quite a few ripples when in a surprise move, it removed all of its ethnic minority members, who also happen to be the more outspoken. That any report coming out of the Commission will be independent or reliable is in serious doubt.

As for one of the HR 43777 stipulations that Burma should be “promoting peace agreements or political reconciliation and is addressing the resettlement and humanitarian situation of displaced persons”, continued fighting in ethnic areas belies the government’s sincerity in talking peace with ethnic armed groups. This also puts into question the validity of the much-heralded National Ceasefire Accord (NCA), which the government says it hopes to sign soon with the 16 ethnic groups negotiating collectively as the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). The army’s continued attacks on ethnic positions have put the ceasefire treaty in jeopardy, and even if signed, it very likely will be breached, since the army, far from withdrawing its forces from conflict areas, is persisting in its aggressive stance, solidifying its entrenchment with heavy sophisticated weaponry in ethnic territories.

President Thein Sein further muddied the waters by linking the nationwide ceasefire with the 2015 elections and a “peaceful transition” to democracy. This move has given rise to suggestions that the President is twisting arms to get the NCCT to sign the NCA on its terms, and to scapegoat ethnic groups if a decision should be made to postpone the 2015 elections. There is even speculation that this offers the ruling USDP party, desperate to avoid a resounding defeat in the elections, a way out.

In the meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of IDPs in Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and Thai-Burma border continue to languish in camps, in deplorable conditions, their return and resettlement all but a distant dream.

As for establishing a process that will amend the constitution, the government has yet to take any concrete steps. This means that the army retains its power broker role in Parliament, and there is no possibility that the Nobel Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will be elected the next President of the country.

The government is backsliding in its reforms on other fronts also. Press freedom is being curtailed, journalists, and activists protesting land grabs and other injustices, are being detained and sentenced. This has led Aung Zaw, founder and editor of The Irrawaddy to call the President’s reform process “farcical”.

It is true that over 3,000 prisoners were recently released in a general amnesty. But only 2 have thus far been identified as political prisoners. The fact that the majority of those released were ordinary criminals, have raised fears among the general public that the release poses a threat to their safety. It is not too far fetched to imagine many of them filling the ranks of roaming gangs of thugs, like those on motorbikes stirring up interreligious violence in places like Meiktila and Pye to far-flung Lashio.

It seems evident then, that Burma has not addressed the major conditions placed by HR 4377 in any satisfactory manner. There is regression, even in its “reform” steps which some have labeled cosmetic from the very beginning. So it is all the more crucial to put pressure on President Obama to reconsider his administration’s military engagement policy with the Burma Army.

There are those who argue that if the US doesn’t engage the Burmese military, Russia or China will, while interestingly expressing doubts if such an engagement can effect real change within the Burmese army. So what it means is that the engagement will provide ‘props’ to the Asian pivot policy of the Obama administration, and the Thein Sein government will be bestowed the legitimacy it desperately craves, without actually having to institute genuine reforms.

While it may be a win-win situation for the two administrations, the same thing cannot be said for the ordinary citizens of Burma, especially those in ethnic minority regions. In fact it will be disastrous for them if it means the perpetuation of a government that is civilian in name only, and the army can carry on with its abusive ways with impunity. The US and the world body should open their eyes to this reality before it is too late.

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