The Need for Bipartisanship on U.S.-Burma Policy

This post was also published on the Partnership for a Secure America’s “Across the Aisle” blog.

The United States’ relationship with Burma has greatly changed in a brief period of time.  Just three years ago, Burma was a pariah state subject to severe American sanctions.  Today, sanctions have been lessened and the Burmese president is welcomed at the White House.  The reason for these changes is Burma’s quasi-military government’s decision to carry out political reform toward a more democratic system.  However, political oppression and human rights violations continue.

The Obama Administration, while aware of these abuses, persists in rewarding the Burmese government for geo-strategic reasons.  Because of this, Congress must press the Administration to institute a more deliberate policy that rewards Burma with economic and diplomatic engagement only when concrete, sustained benchmarks have been met.

Since the late 1980s, the United States has targeted the Burmese government with sanctions because of its human rights violations and political oppression.  Bipartisanship in Congress was central to establishing these sanctions.

In 2008, the ruling generals announced their intent to transition towards democracy.  Two years later, a general election was held, which ostensibly allowed a civilian government headed by former general U Thein Sein to run the country.

Since the general election, the government has implemented civil society reforms, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, after 15 years of house arrest and allowed her to be sworn into parliament.

The United States rewarded the Burmese government for these reforms by lifting its sanctions.  The Obama Administration initially proposed lifting sanctions section-by-section, but a bipartisan push in Congress played a large role in the determination to remove almost all sanctions.

Following two trips to Burma in 2012, John McCain (R-AZ) announced his support for suspending sanctions.  Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) jointly penned a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that all sanctions should be removed to foster a business environment supportive of the rule of law and “human development.”

Unfortunately, it now seems that the United States rushed too quickly into engagement with Burma.

Hate speech, bigotry, intimidation, and violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, are rampant in Burma.  Over 250,000 Rohingya have been internally displaced, 1,000 have been killed, and mosques and 10,000 Rohingya homes have been destroyed.  In some cases, the Burmese military or police have perpetrated these attacks, or have done nothing to stop the violence.

The Burmese military also limits Christian worship and targets Christians for forced labor, rape, and intimidation.

Because of its treatment of religious minorities, the Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan advisory board appointed by the President and Congress, named Burma a “country of particular concern.”

The removal of sanctions has also had the perverse effect of victimizing minority groups.  The Burmese military has directed violence against ethnic minority groups to force them off their land for the purpose of leasing the land to foreign businesses, which are now able to invest in the country.

Political reforms could easily be rolled back by the military, which under the current constitution – drafted by the military government – is guaranteed 25% control of the Burmese parliament, effectively granting it veto power.

Despite these issues, the Obama Administration rewards the Burmese generals.  The Administration has allowed the Burmese military to observe the Cobra Gold military exercise, lifted the visa ban on top Burmese officials, hosted President Thein Sein at the White House, signed a trade and investment framework agreement with Burma, and began military-to-military activities.

The Obama Administration has decided that its geo-strategic aims outweigh the reformation of Burma’s civil society.  These aims include limiting Burma’s relationship with China and North Korea – including a possible nuclear relationship between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang.  This has allowed a system to develop whereby the Burmese military feels it can act with impunity in relation to human rights abuses and delayed political reforms so long as it acquiesces to American geo-strategic objectives.

Therefore, it is up to Congress to keep pressure on the Obama Administration and insist that Burma continue political reforms, improve its human rights situation, and respect the rule of law.

This appears to be occurring.  At a recent hearing on Burma, Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) posited that military-to-military engagement occurred far too soon in light of the military’s continued dominance in the government and its complicity in human rights abuses.  Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) expressed his concern for the Rohingya.  Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) framed the human rights situation in the context of credibility, stating that the United States must help Muslims abroad who are victims of human rights abuses if we want to have influence in the Muslim world to combat terrorism.

Burma’s transition to a democratic society will take time and commitment – a commitment that the Obama Administration is unfortunately less concerned with than its regional security objectives.  It is now up to Congress to make a bipartisan push to reassess the United States’ Burma policy and recommit to the cause of human rights and political reform.


I have been very bust the past month – too busy to write anything here.  Regular postings will resume soon.

Top Stories for the Week of September 16, 2013, to September 23, 2013

The United States House of Representatives voted to extend current the nuclear energy agreement with South Korea -The Korea Herald

The United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a hearing examining the political and human rights situation in Burma – The Bamboo Curtain

The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing for Caroline Kennedy, nominee for United States Ambassador to Japan – The Bamboo Curtain

The United States and the Philippines began joint military exercises around disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea – Xinhua

United States Policy in Burma: Time for Reassessment

On September 19, 2013, the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a hearing entitled “An Unclear Roadmap: Burma’s Fragile Political Reforms and Growing Ethnic Strife.”

Burma has been under military rule since 1962, and the military drafted its current constitution in 2008.  The United States and the international community targeted Burma with sanctions for years due to the government’s anti-democratic activities and human rights abuses.

Two years ago, Burmese President Thein Sein told the world that Burma would embark on a series of reforms away from military rule towards democracy.  Since Burma announced its intentions to democratize, Burma’s foreign relations have changed significantly.  The United States and foreign governments reacted to the news by easing their sanctions; and the once stagnant and isolated country is now attracting foreign investment and tourism.

The reforms, however, have not yet been realized.  Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese opposition politician, democracy activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said that it is now more important than ever to look Burma objectively and realize that the country is not a democracy until its constitution is changed.

This is far from happening.  The recent limited political reforms could easily be turned back by the government, which under the current constitution is guaranteed 25% control of the Burmese parliament, effectively granting them veto power.

The government tightly curtails political opposition.  Although some political prisoners have been freed, there are still over 200 political prisoners in Burma, not including the hundreds of Rohingya and Kachin (minority ethnic groups) arrested or detained for their religion or ethnicity.

Human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities by the majority Buddhist population and by the Burmese military, already a problem prior to Burma’s democratic transition, have become worse.  Over 250,000 Rohingya, a minority group in Burma that practices Islam, have been internally displaced, 300 have been killed, and mosques and 10,000 Rohingya homes have been destroyed.  In some cases, the Burmese military or police perpetrated these attacks, or did nothing to stop the violence.  The internally displaced Rohingya are afraid to return home because of fear of the Burmese security forces.

The Burmese government in Rohingya areas, notably Rhakine state, has also instituted severe restriction on the Rohingya, such as limiting their ability to travel and marry.

Hate speech, bigotry, intimidation, and violence have also been directed against the Rohingya by nationalist Buddhists operating under the 969 movement.  Recently, Time magazine called the leader of the 969 Movement “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”  The government has been complicit in this group’s activities.

A witness at the hearing, The Honorable Thomas Andrews, President of United to End Genocide, said that these developments remind him of the situation in Rwanda prior to the genocide against the Tutsis.

The Burmese military has also directed violence against the Kachin and other minority ethnic groups in the country in an attempt to force them off their land to lease it to foreign businesses now that international sanctions have been eased.

Despite these political and human rights abuses, the Obama Administration has continued its policy of rewards and concessions that it began two years ago when Burma first announced its intention to reform.  In addition to lifting investment sanctions and import bans, President Obama allowed the Burmese military to observe the Cobra Gold military exercise (the largest multi-national military exercise in the world), lifted the visa ban on top Burmese officials, hosted President Thein Sein at the White House, signed a trade and investment framework agreement with Burma, and began military-to-military engagement activities.

Currently, the Obama Administration’s Burma policy is to encourage the military’s divestiture from an economic power to becoming a professional military.  Removal of sanctions has been preconditioned on the military’s divestment of economic holdings in the country.

This strategy aims to limit the military’s relationship with the Chinese and North Koreans, the former being the military’s chief weapons supplier for decades.  The Burmese military, as the primary holder of economic assets in the country, benefits enormously from Chinese investment.  North Korea also supplies weapons to the military, and there are concerns about a possible nuclear relationship developing as well.

The Obama Administration, however, in seeking to limit Chinese and North Korean influence and increase American influence, has allowed a system to develop where the military feels it can act with impunity in relation to human rights abuses and delayed political reforms so long as it acquiesces to American geo-strategic objectives.

During the Subcommittee hearing, Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) stated that military-to-military engagement has occurred far too soon in light of the military’s continued dominance in the government and its complicity in human rights abuses.  His fellow Congressmen shared his opinion.  Ms. Jennifer Quigley, Executive Director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a witness at the hearing, urged the Obama Administration to end military-to-military exchanges until the Burmese military commits to reforms and ends attacks against minority groups.

Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) framed the human rights situation in Burma in the context of United States credibility.  He stated that if the United States is going to have any influence in the Muslim world to work with Muslim governments against terrorist activities, the United States must make sure that when Muslims are the victims of human rights abuses the American government stands up and helps them.

From the statements of the Congressmen and the witnesses, a consensus emerged at the hearing that the Obama Administration moved far too quickly to ease sanctions without concrete reforms.  Ms. Quigley noted that Burmese reforms slowed down dramatically after the Administration lifted American sanctions.  On the same day that the President issued waivers on Burmese sanctions, President Sein told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that the only solution for the Rohingya internally displaced persons is for them to be deported and confined to refugee camps.  Ms. Quigley called on the United States to support an investigation into crimes against humanity in connection to the government’s alleged role in crimes against the Rohingya.

The witnesses suggested a variety of ways that the United States could support and encourage Burma’s reforms.  Only one of the four witnesses, Mr. Ralph Cwerman, President of The Humpty Dumpty Institute, believed that continued, deeper engagement and investment in Burma is the best policy approach.

Congressman Chabot noted that the Obama Administration has “turned a blind eye to congressional concerns” about the United States’ engagement with Burma and has refused the Subcommittee’s invitations to testify at a hearing.

President Obama must seriously reconsider his Burma policy.  United States policy must do more to stop the impunity with which the Burmese military is acting. Lifting sanctions should occur incrementally, with concrete benchmarks to measure reform.

The Obama Administration should not allow alleged perpetrators of ongoing human rights abuses to be rewarded with military-to-military engagement.  Last month, at the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting in Brunei, United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held a bilateral meeting with his Burmese counterpart, Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin, where he expressed the United States’ support for Burma’s upcoming ASEAN chairmanship and told Lt. Gen. Lwin that the Department of Defense looks forward to supporting Burma’s ASEAN defense events next year.

A senior defense official called the meeting, the first at the defense minister level in over 20 years, “a sign of changes and the Obama administration’s very positive engagement with the Burmese, [as well as] recognition of the reforms that have been underway in that country and progress that’s being made on human rights.” These types of meetings send the wrong message to Burmese officials that their conduct against minority groups and political activists is acceptable.

Additionally, the Obama Administration should take a more active role in protecting the rights of minority groups in Burma.  Ms. Quigley told the Subcommittee that minority ethnic groups have asked the United States to support them during their negotiations with the Burmese central government, which is seeking to forcefully take their land and lease it to Chinese and other foreign investors.  These minority groups say that they need the United States to be a counterbalance to the government’s power and Chinese influence.

Two years ago, it was understandable why the President sought to declare a foreign policy victory in Burma, ease restrictions, and hope for the best.  Now, however, the Obama Administration must adopt a more cautious strategy, one that places the human rights and political needs of the Burmese people above the United States’ geo-strategic interests in Southeast Asia.

Watch the Subcommittee hearing here.

Senate Hearing for Caroline Kennedy, Nominee to be US Ambassador to Japan

Yesterday, September 19, 2013, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned Caroline Kennedy, President Obama’s nominee for United States Ambassador to Japan.

Ms. Kennedy is a board member of various non-profit organizations and assorted Kennedy-related institutions.  She is also a fundraiser, author, and a representative of the Kennedy family.  She unsuccessfully ran for Hilary Clinton’s Senate seat after Ms. Clinton became Secretary of State in 2008.

Likely on account of her unfamiliarity with Japan and United States foreign policy, Ms. Kennedy’s testimony before the Senate Committee was light on specifics related to the United States’ Japan policy.  More interesting are the Senators’ questions, which show where their interests are focused vis-a-vis United States-Japan relations.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and American Business Investment

Questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) indicate a concern that Japan is not doing enough to eliminate tariffs on American imports.  Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) was especially concerned about tariffs on soda ash and beef, both important exports for Wyoming.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was concerned about American business interests in Japan.  He asked Ms. Kennedy what she would do to protect the ability of American companies to make profitable investments and create jobs during the present period of Japanese economic reform (the so-called “Abenomics,” after Japan’s current reform-minded Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe).  Ms. Kennedy replied that she would pay close attention to the issue and support the United States Trade Representative’s TPP negotiations.

National Security in the East China Sea

Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), John McCain (R-AZ), and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) addressed issues affecting the United States’ security interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Both Senators McCain and Corker asked Ms. Kennedy about her thoughts on the maritime dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea.  Ms. Kennedy answered that she supports the United States’ long-standing policy: that the United States encourages a peaceful, diplomatic solution without taking a position on the overall sovereignty of the islands themselves.

Senator McCain brought up the issue of the United States’ marine base in Okinawa, a volatile issue to both the Japanese government and the Okinawan people.  Senator McCain stated that this issue has been badly mismanaged and that he hopes Ms. Kennedy will give it priority as Ambassador.

Energy Issues and Nuclear Safety

Japan’s energy policy were an issue for Senators James Risch (R-ID) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).  Both hoped that Ms. Kennedy would convey the United States’ willingness and ability help Japan with its nuclear energy and safety issues.

Senator Shaheen also spoke of her concern over Japan’s importation of Iranian oil.  After the Fukushima disaster, the United States exempted Japan from its Iranian oil ban, which places economic sanctions on foreign countries that import oil from Iran.  Senator Sheehan expressed her hope that Japan will make a greater effort to comply with the ban and reduce its oil imports from Iran as it rebuilds its domestic energy production capacity.

The Hague Abduction Convention

Finally, Senator Cardin informed Ms. Kennedy of his personal concern over child abduction cases affecting Maryland families.  Japan is not currently a member of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a multilateral treaty establishing methods to return a child who has been internationally abducted by a parent from one member state to another, although the Japanese Diet has taken action to join the convention.  400 pending cases involving American children abducted to Japan, however, will not be covered by the convention, even if it is ratified by Japan.  Senator Cardin requested that Ms. Kennedy use office to resolve these open cases.  Ms. Kennedy replied that she has met with the Bureau of Consular Affairs and indicated her concern.

When asked whether she has any personal, specific issue that she would like to focus on while in Japan, Ms. Kennedy stated she would like to use her background in education to promote educational exchanges between the United States and Japan, which are currently at a low point.

On a personal note, while I applaud Ms. Kennedy’s commitment to public service, I question her qualifications as Ambassador to Japan, one of the United States’ most important allies, given her lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge of Japan, especially in light of the foreign policy challenges currently present in the Asia-Pacific.

The trend of appointing large donors, fundraisers, and well-connected individuals without a background in international relations, foreign service, or regional knowledge worries me.  The establishment of a spoils-system, whereby a a Presidential campaigner can sell the ill-equipped, but wealthy and well-to-do an Ambassadorship, will impair American diplomacy.

Ambassadorships should not be helmed by those with open checkbooks or prestigious names, but by individuals who have dedicated their lives to obtaining education in foreign policy, expertise in international relations, foreign language abilities, and knowledge of their appointed country.

Without these traits in our country’s most senior representatives abroad, I worry about the United States ability to establish the delicate relationships necessary for successful diplomatic efforts and implement its foreign policy objectives.  Moreover, I am concerned about the effect this trend is having on the moral and working conditions of our foreign service officers.

Top Stories for the Week of September 8, 2013, to September 15, 2013

The United States warned Sri Lanka that if it fails to domestically address accountability issues regarding the alleged crimes that occurred during the country’s civil war, it may seek an international solution. Colombo Gazette

United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel completed a trip to Asia, his first since assuming this position. While in China, he mainly addressed bilateral issues.  Yonhap

Also during his Asia trip, Mr. Russel reiterated the United States’ hope for a diplomatic solution to the maritime dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Reuters


Top Stories for the Week of September 1, 2013, to September 8, 2013

South Korea and the United States resumed talks on nuclear energy cooperation.  Nuclear energy cooperation has been a significant issue in United States – South Korea relationsYonhap News Agency

The United States and Indonesia committed $12 million to fight tuberculous. US Embassy Jakarta

Senior Diplomat Daniel Russel traveled to South Korea for high-level bilateral talks. State Department

Defense Diplomacy in Nepal and Malaysia.

Note: Apologies for the sparse updating.  It has been a busy last few weeks.  I hope to put up more extensive coverage later this month.  My Twitter account continues to provide regular news updates

A New Type of US-China Military Relationship

My article, A New Type of US-China Military Relationship, was published on The Diplomat.  Read it here.

Top Stories for the Week of August 26, 2013, to September 1, 2013

North Korea rescinded its invitation to United States Special Envoy for North Korea Robert King.  Mr. King had planned to visit the country to press the North Korean government for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen imprisoned in North Korea.  North Korea cited the recent joint US-South Korea military exercises as the reason for the cancellation.  State Department, New York Times, USA Today

Defense chiefs from the United States and South Korea discussed the planned transition of wartime operational control to Seoul.  The chiefs agreed to the need to reschedule the talks, but failed to reach an agreement on the appropriate timing.  Yonhap News Agency

The United States and Myanmar engaged in a legal exchange that focused on international law and best practices for military affairs.  US Embassy Rangoon

A recap of Secretary Hagel’s Southeast Asia tour and the United States “defense diplomacy.”  The Bamboo Curtain

The United States’ Recent “Defense Diplomacy”

Last week, United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other military officials traveled to Southeast Asia to discuss the United States’ commitments to the region.

Secretary Hagel’s visits occurred at a time when the future of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” is uncertain. Events in the Middle East threaten to divert resources and manpower from the region. The Obama Administration sought to demonstrate the United States’ continued involvement in Southeast Asia through this trip.

At a news conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Secretary Hagel called the United States’ engagement with its Southeast Asia allies “defense diplomacy.” As a part of this strategy, the Pentagon is seeking a 50% increase of funds for the militaries of its regional allies. The funds would allow these countries to buy weapons from the United States and let foreign officers train with United States forces.

In Kuala Lampur, Secretary Hagel stated that to strengthen its relationship with Malaysia the United States plans to carry out more than 75 activities, exchanges, and visits with the Malaysian military.

While meeting with Indonesian Minister of Defense Purnomo Yusgiantoro, Secretary Hagel announced that the United States will sell Indonesia eight Apache helicopters for $500 million.

In Brunei, Secretary Hagel met with ten Southeast Asian defense ministers at an ASEAN conference. At the meeting, Hagel and the other ministers spoke of the importance of building regional trust and cooperation. Secretary Hagel emphasized the United States’ support for ASEAN and the need to peacefully resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

While attending the ASEAN conference, Secretary Hagel engaged in separate bilateral meetings with Brunei’s energy minister, Pehin Dato Seri Setia Awang Haji Mohammad Yasmin, Vietnam’s Defense Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, and Burmese Defense Minister Lieutenant General Wai Lwin. Secretary Hagel’s meeting with Burmese General Wai Lwin was the first United States-Burma bilateral meeting at the defense minister level in more than 20 years.

While in the Philippines, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Philippine Military Chief Emmanuel Bautista stated their shared interest in freedom of navigation of the South China Sea.

The Philippines is currently engaged in a dispute with China over the Panatag Shoal (Huangyan Island in Chinese), an uninhabited archipelago with large natural gas and oil reserves. Of all the maritime disputes in the region, the Philippine-China dispute has the highest risk of escalation.

The Philippines has recently sought aid from the United States to defend its maritime claims. The United States does not take sides in the dispute, but it has provided military assets to the Philippine government.

The United States and the Philippines are also discussing the possibility of deploying United States troops to Philippine bases. United States troops have not been stationed in the Philippines since 1992, when the Philippine Senate voted to end the United States’ base lease. Whether these talks are realized, however, is uncertain. The plan faces both domestic hostility and political challenges.

Secretary Hagel’s visits are an important and necessary aspect of the re-balance towards Asia. The United States must carry out continued diplomatic efforts to create sustained relationships with Southeast Asian nations. Erratic engagement or mixed-signals regarding the United States’ long-term presence in the region would cause Southeast Asian countries to engage in security policies premised on the United States’ detachment in the region.

Were such policies pursued, the United States would be excluded from involvement in one of the world’s most economically dynamic and strategically important areas.

Exclusion of the United States from Southeast Asia could also potentially destabilize the region. Without the ability to rely on the United States military to act as a power-of-last resort, Southeast Asian countries could start a regional arms race to defend their maritime and territorial claims.