Date: 09 Sep 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
US Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
RE: BURMA POLICY REVIEW
Dear Secretary Clinton:
We write to you again about the human rights and political situation in Burma and the current US policy review. We believe it is important for the US government to conclude the policy review you announced in February so that American policy and strategy towards Burma will be clear to all concerned. We also believe that as intractable as the situation in Burma may seem, the United States does have options that could have a positive impact on the human rights and political situation in Burma.
As you know, Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. There are strict limits on basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The intelligence and security services are omnipresent. Censorship is draconian. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma’s squalid prisons. These prisoners include many members of the political opposition, courageous protestors who peacefully took to the streets in August and September 2007, and individuals who criticized the government for its poor response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. All have been sentenced after sham trials, summary hearings that often take place in the prisons themselves. The recent conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi on ridiculous charges reminded the world of the despotic nature of the military government that has been in power since 1962.
At the same time, military abuses connected to armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas continue. Human Rights Watch has for many years documented the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, the use of forced labor, and summary killings, rape, and other abuses against minority populations, including the Rohingya, Chin, Shan, and Karen. Recent attacks against Shan and Karen communities have once again led to large-scale displacement of ethnic communities and needless death and hardship. Fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic militias has also driven thousands of refugees from northern Shan state into China.
In addition to rampant violations of civil and political rights, corruption and mismanagement have meant that under military rule Burma has become one of the poorest countries in Asia. The government seems to care little for the basic welfare of its people; to give but one example, while the Burmese government received an estimated US$150 million per month in gas export revenue in 2008, its last announced annual budget to address its AIDS crisis in 2007 was a mere $172,000. While most Burmese struggle to subsist, the country’s leaders have the comfort of “5 star” lives of luxury generated through corruption from the plunder of the country’s natural resources.
There is no mystery in the military’s long-term intentions, as the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been totally open about its plans to stage-manage an electoral process that will ensure continued military rule with a civilian face. Burma’s generals have learned from their resounding defeat by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 1990 and periodic protest movements that it cannot risk staging a credible election (indeed, last year the government announced a 98 percent turnout and a 92 percent vote in favor of a new constitution, just months after the 2007 street protests that rocked the country). They doubtlessly hope that this will mollify the United States, European governments, and other countries that oppose military rule, end the pressure from ASEAN states to make progress on political reform and national reconciliation, and encourage large-scale international aid flows.
Based on the experience of the 2008 referendum, the harsh prison sentences handed down to activists, the lack of serious dialogue with the political opposition and Burma’s many ethnic groups, the stonewalling of United Nations and ASEAN efforts to discuss political and human rights issues, the lack of any reform measures, and the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi on ridiculous charges, it is clear that there will be no meaningful change in the political direction of the country before or after the 2010 elections unless concerned governments and international bodies take steps to change the SPDC’s calculations.
We recognize the scale of this challenge. The military government has close relations with its neighbors China, India, and Thailand, and has large revenue streams from these countries from the sale of gas, timber, gems, and other natural resources. China, Russia, and even South Africa have protected the government from action at the United Nations Security Council. In short, while much of the world sees Burma’s rulers as isolated, ruthless, and despised, from the SPDC’s perspective it has influential friends in the region that provide massive resources through the purchase of energy and other commodities, and shield Burma from concerted action at the UN, ASEAN, and other international fora on subjects like effective arms embargoes or targeted sanctions.
We largely agree with your statement that “the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” but that “reaching out and trying to engage them hasn’t influenced them either.” We suggest that the policy review should, therefore, aim at making more effective all three prongs of US policy – diplomacy, sanctions and humanitarian aid – and not placing one ahead of the others.
On diplomacy, as a starting point there should be no wishful thinking or illusions that more conciliatory talk from the US and others will somehow cause Burma’s senior leadership to alter its plans. It is committed to remaining in complete control, whether through managed elections or the current system. Yet, as in other countries with which the Obama administration is now talking or attempting to open better lines of communication, Human Rights Watch supports US government efforts to speak to the Burmese government at the highest levels. While it is far from clear that the Burmese leadership has any interest in meaningful discussions with the US or any other critical actors, such a policy would remove the perception that the US and others are not willing to engage or be reasonable. Should the leadership be willing to have serious talks, there is nothing to be lost from talking so long as the US stands by its principles to uphold the basic human rights of the Burmese people.
But a couple of cautions: first, it is important that more intensive diplomacy does not lead into the trap of making improved relations the primary goal of US policy. The protection of the rights of Burmese and a genuine and credible political reform process needs to be the primary goal for US policy.
Second, the US should keep in mind that the Burmese officials who normally speak to foreigners – whether the foreign minister or the functionaries involved in the post-Nargis reconstruction – have no real authority in the government and are probably as scared of Than Shwe and other senior leaders as anyone else. Many foreign diplomats and others who have invested a great deal of time and energy in pursuing relations with the second tier of leadership have told us that it was time largely wasted. Those who do have the authority – Senior General Than Shwe, Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, Lt. General Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein, and key regional commanders – usually don’t engage with outsiders. Talking to the deputy health minister and mid-level civil servants can be useful in facilitating humanitarian relief and resolving discrete practical problems on the ground. But it is not a way of addressing the fundamental issues in the country or causes of friction between Burma and the US.
On key political matters, the engagement that has taken place thus far has not been very meaningful and in some cases has even been counterproductive. During the crackdown following the 2007 demonstrations, for instance, diplomatic action merely allowed the SPDC to buy time and pretend that it was engaged in serious discussions. For example, the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, have failed to achieve anything of substance. The situation has devolved to the point that at times getting a visa or a short meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi was treated as a success, with the unintended but predictable consequence of being used by the SPDC for its own propaganda. Ban’s most recent visit also failed to achieve anything of substance; he was not even allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and was given empty promises to release political prisoners.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the United States appoint its own special envoy, as called for in the Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008. That envoy should have a direct line to the Secretary of State and specific instructions to engage in a principled way with the SPDC and other key bilateral and multilateral actors. Vigorous diplomacy is needed with China, India, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and other influential actors to ensure that new revenue streams are not made available to the government.
We also encourage you to consider the establishment of a Burma Contact Group or some form of multilateral grouping to meet and regularly discuss diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government on a range of issues. This could have the effect of converging the views and policies of China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the EU and UN, and gradually minimize the ability of the SPDC to play states off against each other. There is considerable common ground on a range of issues, including the need for political reform and credible elections involving the political opposition, concern over Burma’s trafficking in heroin and methamphetamines, and the need for a regional approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such a grouping would, of course, have to be predicated on the US sticking to its principles and not engaging in diplomatic horse-trading on core issues of reform.
As the United Nations has long been the focal point for diplomacy on Burma, we urge the US to support the continuation of a special envoy of the secretary-general. It is crucial that the secretary-general and the special envoy not get sucked into the game of access or high-level meetings being the goal or a sign of progress. The envoy must be an individual with the principles, skills, and backing of the international community to make an impact.
There is now a strong and even emotional debate on sanctions against Burma. Some argue that sanctions have not had any discernible impact on the military government and should be lifted. Others argue that for political and technical reasons they have never been properly implemented and, therefore, more pressure should be applied by imposing sanctions on additional companies and individuals, and also by encouraging countries and institutions that have not imposed sanctions to do so.
Part of the problem is that this debate tends to treat all sanctions as the same, when in fact they should be differentiated. In our work in various countries around the globe, we have found that properly imposed targeted sanctions can be effective in bringing about improvements in human rights. Targeted sanctions include arms embargoes and restrictions on military assistance, travel bans on individuals, financial sanctions on individuals and entities, and investment and trade sanctions that are specifically focused on companies or economic sectors of greatest concern.
Perhaps the most effective of these are financial sanctions, which we urge the United States to expand, strengthen, and fully implement. The United States has authorities it is not yet using – for example, to deny foreign banks access to the US financial system if they are holding targeted Burmese accounts or otherwise undermining US measures, and going after transactions by the oil and gas authority, the key revenue-generating entity in Burma. This requires the dedication of intelligence resources and continual monitoring and adjustment by US officials – another reason why it’s important to have a senior envoy in place.
Targeted sanctions don’t impose hardship on ordinary people, but do provide leverage if effectively implemented. One approach to make targeted sanctions more effective is for the US to take the lead in coordinating efforts among the US, EU, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada to target key individuals, both military and civilian, who bear responsibility for abuses; their business interests; and the individuals and entities whose considerable financial support of the SPDC could undermine these sanctions. These individuals are at the apex of the system inside Burma and susceptible to this kind of pressure. More effective coordination could also lead to greater support from other key states such as Japan and Singapore. EU states have been noticeably slow to implement full financial sanctions; the US should first set a good example and then press European countries to follow suit. Slow implementation by the US and poor coordination internationally have undermined financial and other sanctions, and kept them from realizing their potential.
Human Rights Watch also believes the US should pursue openings for targeted military sanctions through the UN Security Council’s agenda on children and armed conflict. The Security Council has stated in two resolutions (SC Res. 1539 and Res. 1612) that it will consider bans on the export and supply of small arms, light weapons, and other military equipment and assistance to parties that refuse to end their recruitment and use of child soldiers. The Burmese military retains thousands of children in its ranks and has been identified repeatedly since 2002 by the UN secretary-general for its continued recruitment and use of child soldiers. While the imposition of sanctions by the Security Council against Burma has proven nearly impossible, the children and armed conflict agenda provides a useful avenue for stronger Security Council action. A credible threat of military sanctions can be used as leverage to gain concrete improvements in ending the widespread recruitment and use of children as soldiers.
While we strongly support targeted measures, Human Rights Watch recognizes that generalized sanctions are less likely to be effective and may hurt large numbers of ordinary people, while not having significant impact on governments in targeted countries. In the case of Burma, the existing ban on garment imports has had no discernible impact on the SPDC. We think the US ban on all imports from Burma as it applies to garments should, at the right time, be suspended, lifted, or phased out — so long as the exporting companies and their contractors meet international labor standards, these companies and associated individuals are not themselves targeted for sanctions because of their close ties to the generals, and the companies in question are not otherwise directly linked to the SPDC or armed forces.
However, in light of the sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of political reform, we do not think now is the right time to change these sanctions, as it would send the wrong signal to the SPDC, suggesting that the United States or others have lost their will or commitment to keep up the pressure for democratic reform. Further, it is critical that when the import sanctions as they apply to garments are suspended, lifted, or phased out that this take place only at the same time that new, more effective, targeted sanctions are imposed on key individuals and types of business activity that sustain the regime and existing related sanctions are strengthened.
On humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch has long called for increased assistance to deal with acute humanitarian needs in Burma. US funding should increase. But, again, some cautions. First, the cause of Burma’s humanitarian problems is not a lack of available resources. Burma has made gas deals with Thailand that provides the government its largest source of revenue, worth approximately $2 billion annually. A new deal to supply natural gas to China via an overland pipeline will significantly add to that sum. Burma’s leaders also count on large earnings from sales of gems and timber, and ongoing hydroelectric projects are expected to generate additional lucrative export revenue.
Despite these large revenue sources, the military government spends next to nothing on the welfare of its people. The largest share of the state budget is allocated to the military, as much as 40 percent, while combined social spending is estimated to be a paltry 0.8 percent of GDP for 2008/09, making public expenditures on health and education in Burma among the lowest in the world. Huge numbers of Burmese live in grinding poverty, brought upon by decades of government economic mismanagement and corruption. For this reason, the suggestion that Western business investment in Burma would somehow open up the country is fallacious. Foreign investment in Burma is concentrated on the extraction of natural resources and building of hydropower projects. The resulting revenues are largely squandered, stolen, or used for military spending instead of to meet humanitarian and development needs, ,thereby resulting in the strengthening of those in power and robbing the Burmese people of their patrimony.
Donor discussions with the SPDC over the provision of humanitarian assistance should not neglect the government’s ability to contribute substantially to such assistance. Donors should also remember that the purpose of humanitarian aid is humanitarian – to keep people alive and healthy – not political. No one should expect humanitarian aid itself to have a significant political effect in opening up the country or changing the government’s policies. Donors will also need to stress the importance of transparency and accountability in the delivery of humanitarian aid, including the need for approaches that strengthen civil society rather than existing corrupt power structures and that respond to the views and needs of ordinary people.
The SPDC does not want to be totally dependent on China. For this reason, it also wants assistance from the US, EU, and Japan. Development aid is a very important incentive for change in Burma. However, we do not believe development aid from the US or other countries should be made available until there is significant political reform, progress on human rights, better governance, and the possibility of consulting civil society and local communities in setting development goals. Likewise, World Bank lending for development should also not be resumed until these conditions are met. Unfortunately, the SPDC gives priority to development projects that are “vanity projects” for its leaders, facilitate abusive military campaigns, and help generate funds to strengthen military rule, when what is needed is development that would alleviate the poverty and deprivation of ordinary citizens.
Helping the Burmese people is one of the most difficult and intractable problems the world has faced in recent decades. We don’t underestimate the challenge, but we think a revitalized approach with strong US leadership can make a significant difference in the years ahead.
© Copyright, Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA