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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, I rise today once again with my friend and colleague from Kentucky, Senator McConnell, to introduce a joint resolution to renew the import ban on Burma for another year. We are proud to be joined by Senators MCCAIN and DURBIN in this important effort.

Congressman Joe Crowley and Congressman Peter King have introduced this resolution in the House and I thank them for their leadership and support.

Over the past year, we have seen some remarkable changes in Burma after years of violence and repression.

But the government of Burma still has a lot of work to do to demonstrate to us, the international community, and, above all, the people of Burma that it is truly committed to reform, democratization, and national reconciliation.

We should renew this ban for another year as an incentive to the government of Burma to continue on the path it has undertaken and take additional actions.

I have been involved in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Burma for 15 years.

In 1997, former Senator William Cohen and I authored legislation requiring the President to ban new U.S. investment in Burma if he determined that the government of Burma had physically harmed, re-arrested or exiled Aung San Suu Kyi or committed large-scale repression or violence against the democratic opposition.

President Clinton issued the ban in a 1997 Executive Order.

In 2003, after the regime attempted to assassinate Aung San Suu Kyi, Senator McConnell and I introduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, which placed a complete ban on imports from Burma. It allowed that ban to be renewed one year at a time.

It was signed into law and has been renewed annually since then. It is set to expire on July 26, which is why a renewal of that ban is now before us today.

But unlike past years, we have some good news to report.

Burma has begun to take some significant steps towards embracing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

This is welcome news after so many years of inaction coupled with despotic military rule.

How did we get to this point?

Recall that in 1990 Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won the last free parliamentary elections in Burma, but those results were annulled by the military junta, then named the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC.

These events marked the beginning of more than two decades of violence, oppression, and human rights abuses.

In 2008, the ruling military junta, renamed the State Peace and Development Council, pushed through the ratification of a new constitution, which was drafted without the input of the democratic opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Elections for the new parliament were held in November 2010, but Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were prohibited from participating.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party, comprised of ex-military officials, won approximately 80 percent of the seats. The new parliament elected former General and Prime Minister, Thein Sein, as President.

Following the elections, Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest, after being in prison or house arrest for the better part of 20 years.

While I was pleased that Suu Kyi was free, I was deeply concerned that nothing had really changed for the people of Burma.

Suu Kyi and her party were blocked from participating in the political process. The military maintained its grip on the government and the economy. Democracy advocates and human rights activists remained in prison. Violence against ethnic minority groups continued unabated.

Yet, in the past year we have seen more positive change than we had in the past 20 years.

Indeed, Burma's new government has taken a number of significant actions in an effort to rejoin the international community.

Hundreds of political prisoners were released.

New legislation broadening the rights of political and civic associations has been enacted; and negotiations with ethnic minority groups have begun and some cease-fires have taken effect.

In addition, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, NLD, were allowed to compete in by-elections for 45 open seats in parliament in April 2012.

Suu Kyi and the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats they contested.

For those of us who have been inspired by her courage, her dedication to peace and her tireless efforts for freedom and democracy, it was a thrilling and deeply moving event. Years of sacrifice and hard work had shown results the people of Burma had spoken with a clear voice in support of freedom and democracy.

The U.S. has responded to this reform process in a number of ways.

Secretary Clinton traveled to Burma last December and announced the two countries would resume full diplomatic relations.

Following the April parliamentary elections, the administration announced that it would nominate Derek Mitchell to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years and suspend sanctions on investment and financial services.

I supported these actions. It is entirely appropriate to acknowledge the steps Burma has already taken and encourage additional reforms.

Some may ask then: why stop there? Given the reforms, why not let the ban on imports simply expire?

The fact of the matter is, the reforms are not irreversible and the government of Burma still needs to do more to respond to the legitimate concerns of the people of Burma and the international community.

First, it must address the dominant role of the military in Burma under the new constitution.

The military is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats without elections and remains independent of any civilian oversight.

In addition, the Commander-in-Chief of the military has the authority to dismiss the government and rule the country under Martial Law.

It goes without saying that such powers are incompatible with a truly democratic government.

Second, Burma must stop all violence against ethnic minorities. I am particularly concerned about reports that the Burmese military is continuing attacks in Kachin State, displacing thousands of civilians and killing others.

Third, the government must release all political prisoners.

I applaud the decision of the Government of Burma to release hundreds of political prisoners, including a number of high-profile democracy and human rights activists.

Yet, according to the State Department, hundreds more remain in detention.

Unfortunately, the government of Burma maintains there are no more political prisoners. We must keep the pressure on Burma until all democracy and human rights activists are free and able to resume their lives and careers.

As we debate renewing the import ban, it is important to consider the advice and counsel of Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.

For her part, Suu Kyi has said that while she does not oppose suspending sanctions, the international community must be cautious. Speaking via Skype to an event in Washington D.C. last month she said:

I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma. You have to remember that the democratization process in Burma is not irreversible. I have said openly that we can never look upon it as irreversible until such time that the military commits itself to democratization solidly and efficiently.

I understand that Suu Kyi has spoken to Senator McConnell directly about this matter and she supports renewing the import ban for another year.

I believe that renewing this ban will help keep Burma on the path to full democratization and national reconciliation and support the work of Suu Kyi, the democratic opposition, and the reformists in the ruling government.

It will give the administration additional leverage to convince the Burma to stay on the right path.

The administration will still have the authority to waive or suspend the import ban as it has suspended sanctions on investment and financial services if the Government of Burma took the appropriate actions.

If we let the import ban expire, however, and Burma backslides on reform and democratization, we would have to pass a new law to re-impose the ban.

By passing this joint resolution, we ensure that the administration has the flexibility it needs to respond to events in Burma has it as done so with financial services and investment.

Suu Kyi herself has argued that ``sanctions have been effective in persuading the government to go for change.'' I think renewing the import ban will push it to go further.

I urge my colleagues to support this joint resolution.

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