U.S. officials say efforts to encourage international pressure on Burma's military government are beginning to pay off as more countries urge the country's ruling military regime to ease its suppression of the democratic opposition. A joint hearing by two House subcommittees also heard testimony on human rights violations.
With U.S. sanctions against Burma's military government due to be renewed this year, lawmakers continue to follow the ongoing political and human rights situation.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill says the Bush administration is well aware of this concern, and continues to engage in high-level diplomacy with other countries.
"There are few places in the world where democracy has been suppressed and human rights violated as brutally and systematically as Burma. And the current regime's xenophobic [and] even more irrational policies are driving the country relentlessly down hill in a manner that increasingly harms and threatens Burma's neighbors and the broader region," he said.
Hill points to public statements by Burma's neighbors, and behind-the-scenes activity, as measurable progress in focusing the spotlight on what he calls the military government's irrational and misguided policies.
Progress includes last December's U.N. Security Council briefing on Burma, and indications of increasing concern by China, although he notes Beijing officials do not speak out publicly.
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Barry Lowenkron, lists numerous human rights violations, detentions of political activists, and harsh conditions in the 35 prisons and 70 labor camps estimated to be operating in Burma. "By the end of 2005 there were approximately 1,300 security detainees, which include over 1,100 political prisoners. Although the junta released approximately 19,000 prisoners during two mass releases last year, most were common criminals. Only 361 political prisoners were released but at least 144 activists have already taken their place behind bars and arrests continue unabated. Pro-democracy activists continue to die in custody," he said.
"The military's self-justifications for its decades of arbitrary rule is to protect Burma from instability. What a cruel joke. Yet, for 40 years it has waged endless war on the nation's ethnic minorities, killing tens of thousands, driving hundreds of thousand, perhaps millions of others into exile as refugees, or within Burma as internally displaced persons," said Congressman Christopher Smith, who chairs the House subcommittee dealing with human rights issues.
"One intelligence officer interrogated me when I was blindfolded asking whether I had contact with the opposition group along the border. I replied that I had no contact. As soon as I answered, his fist slammed into my belly and I was knocked down. I could not count how many hours this went on. Eventually I could not stand up anymore," said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who spent more than seven years behind bars.
Another witness was Naw Win Yee, an ethnic Shan from the border near Thailand. She said ethnic groups continue to live in fear amid continuing campaigns by Burma's military involving forced relocation and human rights abuses. "The military regime has targeted civilian populations with a policy known as the Focus Campaign to cut off the resistance movements from the population(s). In reality, this has meant carrying out widespread human rights abuses against innocent villagers by cutting off food supplies, communication, money, and forcibly relocating civilian populations off their lands," she said.
Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch asserts the next step on Burma must be a U.N. Security Council Resolution setting clear benchmarks and penalties if they are not met. "The goal should be a resolution down the road. It's not going to be easy to get because of Chinese opposition. But then again people said we would not even get a discussion of Burma in the [U.N.] Security Council and we proved them wrong," she said.
Assistant Secretary of State Hill told lawmakers ASEAN countries appear to have made what he calls a strategic decision that the situation in Burma cannot go on as it has.
He adds that Burma's military continues to deny U.S. requests, one as recently as last week, to see Aung San Suu Kyi, whose detention the military government extended by six months last November.
Hill says the military government's decision to relocate the capital to a remote area, and its refusal to allow foreigners into the area, reflect what he calls the regime's paranoia and isolation.