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Too Soon to Celebrate? Congress Slams Myanmar Ahead of Kerry Visit

Too Soon to Celebrate? Congress Slams Myanmar Ahead of Kerry Visit

Citing a growing list of human rights violations in Myanmar, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday called for a range of new punitive measures against the government of President Thein Sein, including visa bans, an end to U.S.-Myanmar military cooperation, and a serious look at whether to impose economic sanctions on the former international pariah.

The call for swift action, echoed by some committee Democrats, underscores the extent to which Myanmar, a country President Barack Obama recently touted as a foreign-policy success, has backslid into a routine of authoritarianism and oppression.

"It is time that we take off the rose-colored glasses and see the situation in Burma for what it is," said Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). "We cannot continue to lavish more incentives on the government of Burma in hopes that it will do the right thing."

The Southeast Asian nation continues persecuting Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, also known as Burma, where some 100,000 members of the ethnic minority are denied access to health care and food, and mob violence has displaced some 140,000 people. The parliament of Myanmar, meanwhile, may soon pass a draconian law restricting religious freedom. And in the run-up to the country’s elections next year, opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi remains prohibited from running for president.

All this comes ahead of a scheduled visit by Secretary of State John Kerry in August and Obama in November. Although the White House is expected to point to Myanmar as a pillar in the administration’s strategic "pivot to Asia," a growing chorus in Congress is urging the administration to get tough with Myanmar.

Royce specifically called on the administration to add the names of the people responsible for the violence against the Rohingya to the State Department’s visa-ban list and the Treasury Department’s "Specially Designated and Blocked Person" list. "In a country with increasing economic opportunities, cutting off the possibility of relationships with foreign investors could deter those who perpetrate … violence against the Rohingya," Royce said.

He also wants the United States to end its military-to-military relationship with Myanmar’s security forces, calling a recent visit last month by U.S. officials to discuss Myanmar’s military training "particularly ill-timed." 

In the late-June trip, Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor led an interagency delegation to Myanmar that included officials from the departments of State and Defense, and the National Security Council staff. The trip has come under criticism for laying the groundwork for the training of Myanmar military officials by the United States. A State Department official, speaking on background, emphasized that the interaction with Myanmar to date has been limited and focused on discussions about human rights, military justice, and civilian control of the military. "Our approach is designed to build mutual understanding and enhance the military’s understanding of international norms of conduct as part of our strategy to support reforms and a successful democratic transition," said the official. 

Republicans aren’t the only ones concerned about Myanmar’s backsliding. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia voiced strong concerns on Wednesday about ethnic-based violence in the country: "The plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in the Rakhine State warrants the attention of Congress," he said, referring to the violence unfurling in the western province.

Experts testifying before the committee, including Thomas Andrews, president of United to End Genocide, asked the administration to impose a moratorium on any further concessions and rewards to Myanmar, such as diplomatic and military visits, until the county makes concrete improvements. Such steps would include restoring health care services to the Rohingya following the expulsion of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders earlier this year, and allowing the United Nations to open an office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

"We urge the administration and Congress to not only condemn the disturbing trends that are clearly evident in Burma but hold the government and military leaders of Burma fully accountable," Andrews said. "The fact is for millions in Burma things are getting decidedly worse, not better, as respect for human rights deteriorates and the danger of a massive loss of life gets worse."

The State Department official emphasized that U.S. officials regularly have frank discussions with Myanmar about concerns over human rights abuses and the continued role of the military in the country’s political and economic activities. "Burma is undertaking dramatic changes and, like all countries in transition, it faces significant problems that will take time to address," said the official. "We are determined to work closely with Burma’s reformers to see this process through."

In a speech at West Point in June, Obama acknowledged Myanmar’s challenges but still pointed to it as a diplomatic victory. "Look at a country like Burma, which only a few years ago was an intractable dictatorship and hostile to the United States," he said. "We have seen political reforms opening a once-closed society…. [I]f Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot."