Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, October 18, 2007

U.S. lawmakers call for tougher action on Burma

With the international spotlight beginning to shift away from the crisis in Burma, where a military government continues its crackdown on pro-democracy activists, U.S. government officials on Wednesday sought to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to promoting meaningful change in the Southeast Asian nation.

Scot Marciel, the State Department deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia, told a House subcommittee that the U.S. strategy is to “maintain maximum pressure on the regime, both bilaterally and multilaterally to end the repression, release the prisoners, and initiate a genuine dialogue with [detained activist and Nobel peace laureate] Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition, and with the ethnic minority group that leads to peaceful transition to civilian, democratic rule.” To do this, Marciel said that Washington is supporting the diplomatic salvos of U.S. Special Advisor on Burma Ibrahim Gambari, while working “to tighten sanctions on regime leaders and their cronies” by freezing their assets in banks under U.S. jurisdiction and considering further measures.

Lawmakers pressed Marciel on the need for tougher action though. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) asserted that the U.S. government should have a list of all members of the Burmese military engaged at any level in the murder of pro-democracy activists, saying they should be deemed war criminals. He also called for junta leaders to be jailed, calling them “gangsters.”

“These people will respond to pressure. They will respond to counterforce. And they won’t respond to anything else,” Rohrabacher said.

Others called for closer scrutiny of foreign investment in Burma by major international powers. U.S.-based oil companies like Unicol and Chevron provide Rangoon with hundreds of million in revenue and China also has vested economic interests there, Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Diane Watson (D-Calif.) and others noted.

For his part, Marciel said that the State Department had seriously considered the possibility of a Chevron withdrawal, but argued that the impact would be largely symbolic and not economic, as another multi-national oil company would likely move in to take its place.

Marciel also argued that China should see a stable and prosperous Burma as in its best interests, saying that the fact that Burma is “exporting refugees and infectious disease” should be a major concern to its neighbor to the north.

The other witness present, Lisa Chiles of the U.S. Agency for International Development, discussed assistance efforts in Burma to date, highlighting U.S. initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS and improve access to education and healthcare for several thousand displaced persons. Still, she acknowledged that extreme hardship persists, with 35 percent of Burmese children under the age of five malnourished and 32 percent underweight and physically stunted. Circumstances have only worsened of late, she said, with the impact of rising fuel and food prices falling hardest on the disadvantaged.

USAID is ready to “explore additional assistance oportunitites,” Chiles said, but the agency cannot “make a strong contribution to Burma’s future development” until the political situation there improves.


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