Mr. Chairman, and honourable members of the subcommittee, thank you very much for holding this hearing today. I am grateful to be here to testify about the human rights situation in Burma, the country in southeast Asia where I was born and raised.
I would like to submit my prepared testimony for the record. I will summarize it now, in 10 minutes.
The historic byelections in Burma were held on April 1, 2012. Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 seats out the 44 they had contested. The ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the USDP, won only one seat.
For the Burmese regime, allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to hold about 7% of the seats in parliament will not constitute any major threat to their hold on power, as USDP and the military still control 80% of the seats in parliament and the military still has veto power to kill any proposed legal changes.
However, the benefits they are gaining from the byelections are enormous. The international community recognizes their political system as all-party-inclusive and legitimate. The pressure and sanctions imposed by the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union are being significantly eased or suspended. The Japanese government has announced it will write off $3.7 billion in debt, and plans to resume development assistance.
The generals and their cronies, who still control the country, may be able to go shopping and send their children to schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe soon. In my opinion, the Burmese government led by President U Thein Sein is the real winner of the byelections.
We need to judge carefully whether current developments really substantiate the lifting of sanctions or not. To be sure, there have been significant changes in Burma over the past nine months, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are irreversible or that all things are pointing in a positive direction. Responding to positive changes is one thing; racing to provide rewards may be regrettable.
Let me begin with the issue of political prisoners. The Burmese regime has consistently said that there are no political prisoners in Burma. Nevertheless, the regime released more than 500 political prisoners in October 2011 and January 2012. Those released included prominent leaders of Burma’s democracy movement. This is remarkable.
However, their release is not unconditional. Many of them were released as their prison terms were almost completed, and many were released under subsection 401(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which grants temporary suspension of the prison term. They will be rearrested without warrant by security officials if the president is not happy with their activities, and they will have to serve the remainder of their prison term, in addition to a new sentence.
Furthermore, more than 600 political prisoners, including prominent human rights defender U Aye Myint and student leader Aye Aung, and many Buddhist monks are still in prison. The unjust laws and decrees that the regime created and used to send them to prison are still in effect.
The ineffective and corrupt judiciary system has been and continues to be an instrument of oppression used by the regime against its own citizens. Corrupt judges run the courts without due process and make rulings as instructed by their superiors, or in favour of those who pay the most. Law enforcement officials are brutal and dangerous, and arbitrary detention and torture are their only tools to get confessions from the accused.
I would like to shed some light on the ceasefire agreements and peacemaking process. It is true that the Burmese government has signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups. However, these agreements are preliminary and fragile. War in Kachin state and northern Shan state between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Organization is still ongoing and has forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic people to flee from their homes and villages.
Current peace talks between ethnic armed groups and the regime may not lead to the permanent ending of civil war without the establishment of ethnic rights. Such rights include a certain degree of autonomy, self-determination, and proper sharing of revenue generated from natural resources located in ethnic areas, which represent 60% of the country’s total land, as well as a complete end to human rights violations in ethnic areas, committed by the Burmese military.
The ceasefire agreements will not last as long as the Burmese government does not withdraw its troops from ethnic areas and does not try to reach a negotiated political settlement with ethnic groups outside of the parliament.
National reconciliation is not just about dialogue and ceasefire agreements between the government and ethnic armed groups. It should be a process of ending decades of violence, abuses, and impunity for systematic and widespread human rights violations, addressing the suffering of the abused, and holding accountable those who committed the horrible crimes. Any peace-making effort without addressing truth, justice, and accountability will not be credible.
Let me talk about the byelections. It is true that the byelection was historic, because our leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party contested and won a landslide victory. However, this victory gave Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about 7% of seats in the parliament. We cannot celebrate such a small gain when our long-standing objective and expectation of Burma’s democracy movement, which is the realization of a meaningful and time-bound political dialogue between the military, democracy forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives that would lead to real democratization and sustainable national reconciliation, was effectively eradicated.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD have promised that it will work on three major issues in the parliament. Number one is rule of law. Number two is internal peace. Number three is amendments to the 2008 constitution. All three major campaign issues need constitutional amendments and additional changes to the laws in order to be fulfilled.
However, the constitution was purposefully crafted to be difficult to amend. At least 20% of lawmakers have to submit the bill to amend the constitution to the Union Parliament, which is a joint session of the lower and upper houses, and the amendment can only be approved by a vote of more than 75% of all the representatives of the Union Parliament. This effectively gives a veto power to the military, which holds 25% of seats in the parliament. Even if all 75% of the elected representatives stand together for the constitution amendment, they cannot win if they are unable to get even one vote from the military bloc.
While the people see some freedom on mainland Burma today, there is no difference in ethnic areas. There are more and more violations of land and housing rights caused by infrastructure and development projects, natural resources exploitation, and land confiscation by the military and its cronies. The government’s decision to grant economic opportunities to the businesses belonging to the military and its cronies are always made without consultation with affected communities and without proper environmental and social impact assessments. These projects have driven the people into deep poverty, landlessness, and displacement.
Instead of withdrawing from the ethnic areas, the Burmese army has increased troops and supplies including food rations and weapons to the ethnic areas. They forced the nearby villagers to carry their supplies from the road to their barracks, and ordered the villagers to provide them with leaves, bamboo, and small wood poles to build or renovate their new barracks, especially before the rainy season comes. The Burmese soldiers have also constantly attacked religious gatherings of ethnic people who are not Buddhists.
Mr. Chair and honourable members of the subcommittee, I support the gradual relaxation of sanctions in a way that is directly tied to progress. A gradual approach enables the international governments to engage and influence the Burmese government in a direction that supports genuine and sustained political reform toward democratization, durable peace, and improved respect for human rights. I worry, however, that the Canadian government may be moving forward in a way that will undermine those goals.
Two days before the byelections, when a journalist asked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi how she would rate the current state of changes towards democracy in Burma on a scale of one to ten, she replied, and I quote, “On the way to one”. She knows clearly that there is still a long way to go.
In addition, the premature lifting of economic sanctions can greatly jeopardize the fragile peace negotiations currently under way between the regime and the ethnic armed groups. The majority of Burma’s ethnic populations believe that the regime is engaging in these negotiations to win economic concessions from the ethnic armed groups. If the international community rewards the regime with economic gains, critical leverage is lost to ensure that national reconciliation and peace is achieved.
Therefore, I would like to make the following recommendations and requests to the Canadian Parliament to balance the fast-track action of the Canadian government.
Number one, the list of designated persons and entities for asset freeze and prohibition on transactions must be updated to include more cronies and hard-liners. The list should be a must-check reference for Canadian companies that will do business in Burma.
Number two, binding requirements or a compulsory framework for responsible business conduct should be imposed for any business that will invest in Burma.
Number three, the cronies and military-owned business entities control every sector of the economy in Burma, especially in banking, airlines, and extractive industries such as oil, gas, power, and mining, so the Canadian government should consider restoring sanctions on these sectors.
Number four, the Canadian government must pressure the Burmese regime to end war in Kachin state and establish a nationwide ceasefire immediately. The Burmese government must allow former political prisoners to obtain passports, so they can make trips abroad; allow members of Burmese civil society to form and operate non-profit organizations freely; release all remaining political prisoners unconditionally; lift all restrictions imposed upon all former political prisoners; allow former political prisoners to go back to school or resume their professions such as legal representatives, medical practitioners, teachers, etc.; and allow international organizations to have unhindered access to areas affected by natural disasters and armed conflict.
Number five, the Canadian government must remind, and keep reminding, the Burmese regime that their full cooperation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic MPs in parliament and achieving a negotiated political settlement with ethnic nationalities through a meaningful political dialogue outside parliament are the sole factors to justify fully lifting all sanctions.
Thank you very much.