Thinking about Burma brings certain indelible images to mind: the brutal crackdown on courageous, saffron-robed monks protesting peacefully two years ago; the strength of purpose reflected in the face of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who is held in captivity; the stark conditions described by former political prisoners held for years in ramshackle jails built during British colonial times; and nearly 100,000 child soldiers who are forced to bear arms to offset high rates of desertion in the military.
Such images may no longer be on the front pages of our papers or brought to us on the nightly news, but during the next couple of hours, they should be kept in our thoughts.
More than 2,000 Burmese political prisoners remain behind those bars. Aung San Suu Kyi is again sentenced to house arrest, this time under a convenient pretext to keep her from taking part in elections expected to be held next year – elections that the ruling junta in Burma is already maneuvering to undermine.
Last month, the Obama Administration announced a new U.S. policy toward Burma: expanded engagement with the government while maintaining economic pressure on the leadership through existing sanctions.
The purpose of this hearing is to assess the implications of this policy. Finding a workable international approach toward reform inside Burma is in our strategic interest and requires working on a solution with stakeholders such as China, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union.
The Administration’s policy review was the result of a series of troubling developments: the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution in September 2007, the fraudulent national constitutional referendum held just days after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, attacks against ethnic groups on the China-Burma border, and the re-sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi despite widespread condemnation from the international community.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. government has imposed a number of economic and diplomatic sanctions in order to pressure the Burmese military regime to follow internationally accepted norms for human rights.
These include the prohibition of investments in Burma by U.S. companies or persons, and targeted sanctions as mandated in the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2007.
During this hearing we will consider the effectiveness of such measures, and ways in which they may need to be refined or better-enforced.
In announcing the new policy last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “We believe that sanctions remain important as part of our policy, but by themselves they have not produced the results that had been hoped for on behalf of the people of Burma. Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion."
I agree with the Secretary that engagement and sanctions must be applied together for reforms to take place in Burma. It is also clear that our policy of isolation over the past two decades has resulted in China’s growing political and commercial influence in Burma, and little progress in supporting those calling for reform.
Historically, China’s relationship with Burma has been precarious, but in our absence it has been strengthened. While China has sought international recognition as a rising global power, Beijing has become the strongest defender of Burma’s repressive policies in the United Nations and other international fora, risking its reputation as a responsible global partner.
Any changes in Burma will have a direct impact on China and other neighboring countries. The Burmese border regions have long been a bastion of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other criminal activity, not to mention infectious disease – none of which can be contained by political boundaries.
Thailand and China have also seen a spike in the flow of refugees as thousands of Burmese have fled across the border to escape the intensified violence and egregious human rights violations against women, children, and ethnic minorities.
There are troubling questions about military ties between Burma and North Korea, which Secretary Clinton has spoken about publicly, as well as nuclear weapons proliferation concerns stemming from that relationship. Burma has also been sending hundreds of officials to Russia for nuclear technology training, and is reportedly engaged in discussions to purchase a nuclear reactor from Russia.
Next month, President Obama will go to Singapore to attend the APEC conference as well as the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
This will be a unique opportunity for the President to put into practice our country’s new strategy of engagement and multilateral cooperation with our partners in the region on the Burma issue.
Congress stands ready to augment the work of the Administration. We want to strengthen the forces of change inside Burma.
And as a symbol of our enduring solidarity with the people of Burma, we look forward to the ceremony next year at which this body will bestow its highest civilian honor on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Congressional Gold Medal. If this courageous freedom fighter is prevented by her government from traveling to the United States, the ceremony will proceed as planned, with a seat held open for her.
I now turn to the distinguished Ranking Member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for any opening remarks she might want to make.