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United States lead on Burma needed, USCIRF panel told

WASHINGTON (BP)–Effective, international pressure on the military junta of Burma, also known as Myanmar, to change its repressive ways depends on the leadership of the United States, a bipartisan, religious liberty panel was told in a Capitol Hill hearing.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom heard witnesses testify Dec. 3 about Burma’s bloody September crackdown on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and what the United States and other international actors could do to help bring change in the Southeast Asian country.

There was an agreement that the United States had responded firmly but needed to do more, especially in coordinating an international effort. Witnesses also said the United Nations and countries such as China and India could do much more.

“I think we’re not going to see the international community come together in an effective way unless the U.S. takes the lead,” said Michael Green, a senior adviser at the Center for International Studies who formerly worked at the National Security Council (NSC). “We don’t necessarily want to be the face of this international approach, but we have to be the engine.”

The confrontation between Burmese citizens and the regime began in mid-August when people began protesting an exorbitant rise in fuel prices instigated by the military junta. It intensified when thousands of Buddhist monks joined the demonstrations. The military put down the protests in late September by killing some protesters, beating and jailing others, and raiding Buddhist monasteries.

The junta reported 14 deaths among dissenters, one witness said at the hearing, but others estimate the figure is much higher. About 5,000 people, including 2,000 monks, were arrested, the panel was told.

The Burmese regime’s violent putdown of the protests has been met by “broad international indignation,” but it will be an “uphill battle” to produce reform, Green told the USCIRF members at the hearing. He described the U.S. government’s proposals as “very strong and very smart.” He also said China, India, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had taken some important, though inadequate, steps. Burma is one of the 10 members of ASEAN.

The United States, “in spite of some very good sanctions…, really has not brought together this effort in a coordinated way to make sure that the sanctions are enforced,” Green told the commissioners. “[W]e really can’t afford to wait, because the international indignation and focus is going to dissipate. It’s not too late, but it’s getting there.”

The U.S. needs a senior level official in place, such as at the NSC or State Department, to coordinate the effort, he said.

Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer, told the panel, “[L]ikely what is required is both more sanctions and more engagement. The sanction-based approach has been confined primarily to Western democracies.”

The United States ordered sanctions on new investments in Burma in 1997 and on the import of numerous goods in 2003, he said.

“Rather than concluding economic sanctions have failed, as some have argued internationally, it is actually more accurate to say they haven’t really been tried in any meaningful way, except by the United States,” said Genser, president of Freedom Now, which works to free prisoners of conscience overseas.

Both Genser and Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, called for Congress to pass the Burma JADE Act, H.R. 3890, which would expand U.S. sanctions to Burmese gems that go through third-party countries on their path to this country.

Din also recommended the selection of a U.S. sanctions coordinator for Burma.

The U.N. Security Council probably must adopt a meaningful resolution to bring about change in Burma, Genser said.

Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land, who chaired the hearing for USCIRF, reiterated the commission’s call for a Security Council action “that calls for the release of Burmese prisoners, an end to the regime’s crackdown and real dialogue that leads to peaceful transition to democracy,” as well as the panel’s request that the U.S. leverage other governments to pressure Burma.

“The international community needs to demand a full accounting of the latest atrocities in Burma so that we can know the full scope of the Burmese military’s brutality and can hold those responsible accountable,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “All monks need to be freed immediately and unconditionally.”

Land is a vice chair of USCIRF, serving in his sixth year on the panel.

The State Department has included Burma on its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) ever since it began issuing an annual report on international religious freedom in 1999. In May, USCIRF urged the State Department to retain Burma as a CPC, a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.” The State Department has yet to release its CPC list this year.

The regime promotes Buddhism but also works to control it, jailing monks who have opposed the junta’s policies, according to USCIRF. The government also suppresses ethnic Christians and Muslims, USCIRF has reported.

More than 3,200 villages in ethnic areas of Burma have been demolished during the military’s rule, Din testified. That has resulted in the dislocation of more than 500,000 ethnic Burmese, he said.

USCIRF was established in 1998 to advise the White House and Congress on global religious freedom issues. The president selects three members of the nine-person panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.