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US Congress Targets Burma Rights Abuses - 2004-06-14

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on legislation, which if passed by the Senate, would renew a law banning U.S. imports from Burma, in response to what lawmakers call continuing oppression by the military government in Rangoon.

Congress approved the law, called the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, last year in the wake of an unprecedented physical assault on a convoy carrying Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Building upon a previous ban on any new U.S. investment in Burma implemented under the Clinton administration, the import ban was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 418 to 2, but requires annual renewal by Congress.

In debate Monday, several House lawmakers referred to what they called the failure of the Burmese military government, the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, to make demonstrated progress toward implementing democracy.

"Burma's ruling elite, who have a questionable direct financial tie to most enterprises in Burma, must understand that they will be unable to enrich themselves off of the American consumer," said Congressman Tom Lantos,the key sponsor and top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

Among Republicans supporting renewal is Congressman Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

While not generally a supporter of sanctions, he noted a State Department estimate that 60,000 to 70,000 people in Burma's textile sector lost jobs since the import ban took effect.

However, Congressman Thomas says congressional action was made necessary by the actions of the ruling military government in Rangoon. "These people were not helped by the sanctions. At the same time, the actions of the ruling junta in Burma continue to be unacceptable," he said. "I believe sanctions are appropriate if the circumstances are limited, targeted, re-examined yearly, and if we continuously analyze them to make sure they are not causing more harm than good."

While lawmakers support renewal, some are impatient with what they describe as a lack of progress in persuading other governments to take similar strong action.

Congressman Lantos believes the Bush administration has not worked hard enough to encourage Asian governments, and members of the European Union to take action of their own.

"If sanctions fail to quickly bring change to Burma, it is not because they represent the wrong approach," he said. "It is because high-level administration officials have not picked up the phone to urge our European Union counterparts to adopt targeted import sanctions on Burma."

A similar version of sanctions renewal legislation has yet to be approved in the Senate, but easy passage there is also expected.

That version says sanctions should continue until Burma's military government allows an "irreversible path of reconciliation that includes the full and unfettered participation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic minorities" in the political process.

A national constitutional convention, tightly controlled by Burma's military government, has been underway in Burma for several weeks.

However, despite signals by senior members of the ruling military that Aung San Suu Kyi would be released, and her party able to resume normal political activities, that has not happened.

The National League for Democracy won a majority of seats in an election permitted by the military in 1990, but was never allowed to take power.