The Subcommittee on International Human Rights
The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development
House of Common of the Canadian Parliament
Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Subcommittee,
Thank you very much for holding this hearing today. I am grateful to be here to testify about the current situation in Burma, the country in Southeast Asia where I was born and raised.
The historic by-elections in Burma were held on April 1, 2012. Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 43 seats out the 44 they had contested. The ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won only one seat. Despite threats, violence, vote buying and other fraudulent acts made by the authorities, the people of Burma again courageously expressed their strong desire to be free from authoritarian rule by voting for the NLD, just as they did in the 1990 elections. The results of the NLD’s 1990 landslide victory were nullified by the military junta.
For the Burmese regime, allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to hold nearly 7% of the seats in Parliament will not constitute a 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 by-elections are enormous. The international community recognizes their political system as all party-inclusive and legitimate. Many international leaders see them as true reformers. 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 dollars in debt and plans to resume development assistance. Engagement and appeasement will flourish further. More investment and more tourists, as well as more development assistance will flow in. 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 and Europe soon. In my opinion, the Burmese government led by President U Thein Sein is the real winner of the by-elections.
The Governments’ Justification of Lifting Sanctions
The Canadian government, like many other western governments, has justified its suspension of sanctions by praising some positive developments that happened in Burma, namely the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the Burmese government’s effort to make peace negotiations and ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, and the victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party members in the by-election. However, we need to judge carefully whether these 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.
First let me begin with the issue of political prisoners. The Burmese regime has consistently said that there are no political prisoners in Burma. It claims that all the people in prisons are convicted prisoners who violated the laws. 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 Section 401 (1) of the Criminal Procedure of the Penal Code, 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 will have to serve the remainder of their prison term, in addition to a new sentence.
Take the example of Zargana, the most famous comedian of Burma, who was released in October 2011. He was sentenced to 59 years imprisonment in June 2008. His sentence was later commuted to 35 years. Upon his release, he had served 3 years and 3 months in prison; however he still owes 31 years and 9 months to President U Thein Sein. It is a very heavy weight sitting on his shoulders at all times. Actually, they are not truly free yet.
Furthermore, more than 600 political prisoners, including prominent human rights defender U Aye Myint and student leader Aye Aung, are still behind bars. 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 favor of those who pay them most. Law enforcement officials are brutal and dangerous, and arbitrary detention and torture are their only tools to get confessions from the accused.
Fragile Peace Making Process
Second, I would like to shed some light on the ceasefire agreements and peace making process. It is true that the Burmese government has signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, including Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni Progressive Party (KNPP), Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), and Chin National Front (CNF). However, these agreements are preliminary and fragile. War in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, between the Burmese army and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), 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, proper sharing of revenue generated from natural resources located in ethnic areas, which represents 60% of the country’s total area, 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 try to reach a negotiated political settlement with ethnic groups outside of the Parliament. President U Thein Sein’s offer to the ethnic groups to discuss their concerns within the Parliament framework, as the second stage of the peace process, is not accepted by all ethnic groups. Also, the Burmese military’s continued offensive against the KIO in Kachin State proves that the President does not have power to control the military, the major perpetrator of human rights abuses in Burma.
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 abuses, 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.
The April 1st By-Elections and Beyond
Third, let’s look at the April 1st by-elections. It is true that the by-election was historic, because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD contested and won a landslide victory. However, this victory gave Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only about 7% of seats in the Parliament where the ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the military still control 80% of seats, and the military still has veto power to kill any proposals of change. We can’t celebrate such a small gain when the long standing objective and expectation of Burma’s democracy forces and ethnic nationalities – 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 by this election. The NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are now entering into a new playing field to organize changes within the military controlled political system.
The NLD has promised that it will work on three major issues in the Parliament: (1) rule of law, (2) internal peace, and (3) amendments to the 2008 Constitution. All three major campaign issues promised by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi need constitutional amendments and additional changes to laws in order to be fulfilled. She is now in the new playing field with good faith that she can work with key leaders of the regime, President U Thein Sein, Parliament Speakers U Shwe Mann and U Khin Aung Myint, and Military Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, to make the country prosperous and democratic. However General Min Aung Hlaing confirmed to his troops recently that the major task of the military is to protect the constitution, signaling that he will not allow any reduction in his power. Former Major General Htay Oo, who is the General Secretary of the USDP, also recently said that the Constitution is perfect and there is no reason to amend it, including the leading role of the military in politics.
Amending the undemocratic 2008 Constitution is the single most important issue. This constitution grants supreme power to the military’s Commander-in-Chief, who can run the military as he deems fit. The military is independent from all executive, legislative, and judiciary authority; yet it can interfere in all branches of the government. It holds 25% of the seats in each parliament and three significant security ministries in the government, and ensures civilian judges have no jurisdiction over armed forces. Moreover, the Commander-in-Chief can assume all power, dismiss the government, and rule the country under the Martial Law in the name of a state of emergency. If Burma hopes to move toward a genuine democratic government, civilian oversight of the military and removal of the military’s authority over the government are imperative.
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, a Joint Session of the Lower and Upper Houses, and the amendment can only be approved by a vote of more than seventy-five percent of all the representatives of the Union Parliament. This effectively gives a veto power to the military, which represents 25% of seats in the Parliament. Even if all 75% of the elected representatives stand together for the amendment, they cannot win if they are unable to get even one vote from the military bloc.
Human Rights Abuses Unabated
When the people see some freedom on the 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 cronies. The government’s decision to grant economic opportunities to the businesses belonging to the military and 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 more 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, bamboos 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.
The by-election is just the beginning of new challenges for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. There is the risk, of course, that she may be contained, confined and co-opted in the regime’s political system without achieving anything. Or, she may be able to crack the door wider and recruit more and more members of the USDP and the military to join in the alliance of the agents of reform. There are so many uncertainties lying ahead. Even before joining in the Parliament session on May 2nd, the USDP and the military refused to amend the language of the parliamentary oath requested by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We can see from this standpoint the magnitude and depth of obstacles that DASSK will face in the Parliament. Nevertheless, governments around the world, including Canada, are rushing to reward the regime with the justification of encouraging the reformers.
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 towards 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. Despite holding by-elections and taking other positive steps, the Burmese government has yet to institute the reforms necessary to move Burma toward democracy, and basic political power remains with the military. Two days before the by-elections, 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, we are “on the way to 1.” 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 underway between the regime’s civilian authorities and ethnic nationality groups. The majority of Burma’s ethnic populations believe 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 national political reconciliation and peace is achieved.
I am sure we all look to 2015 with the expectation that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party will win the majority of seats in the general election. The sanctions we have are leverage for her, Burma’s democracy movement, and ethnic nationalities, a kind of the money in the bank. We need to use it carefully, so it will last until we achieve major results. That is why I would like to make the following recommendations and request the Canadian Parliament to balance the fast track action of the Canadian government.
Lastly, I would like to highlight the assumption of reformers vs. hardliners within the Burmese regime. Many international players believe that they have to encourage so-called reformers by lifting sanctions and pressure, so that reformers will be encouraged and hardliners will be undermined. There is a possibility that the positive responses being made by the international community may become irreversible while the changes in the country are yet reversible. Encouraging the so-call reformers in the regime should not undermine democracy activists, ethnic nationalities, and human rights defenders, the true agents of change in Burma.