FRANKS: Obama must use Burma visit to push for reform

Atrocities still occurring under vicious army

A grandmother sat alone in a church near Burma’s Kachin-China border in early May of this year and silently waited for the notoriously brutal Burma Army to raid her village. Other Kachin villagers fled once they heard that the Burma Army was approaching, but “Ngwa Mi” (real name withheld) was left behind. Her only protection was the sanctuary of the church.

When the Burma Army finally came to the village, they showed no mercy towards the 48-year-old grandmother. Over a period of three days, Ngwa Mi was violently beaten with rifle butts, stabbed with knives, stripped naked, and gang raped. Another Kachin man, who was captured while caring for his paralyzed wife, was brought back to the village. As he lay in the church with his hands and legs tied, he watched with horror and helplessness at the sickening acts that were committed against the vulnerable grandmother.

The victims in the village church were left semi-conscious and Ngwa Mi later suffered severe mental health problems. After reports of the torture were released, a spokesman from the Kachin Women’s Association stated, “[T]he Burmese military can rape and kill ethnic women with impunity.”

After Aung Suu Kyi’s recent visit to the U.S. and President Obama’s Southeast Asia tour and historic meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein, discussions about democratic reforms in Burma are underway. Burma’s government has taken modest steps toward democratization by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, and permitting dissidents to participate in the political process. However, the U.S. must continue to aggressively identify and underscore other atrocities that threaten future peace and stability. The plight of the Kachin is only one such example of outstanding reforms that still need to take place within Burma.

As the U.S. continues to work closely with the Burmese government on reforms, we must ensure that legitimate ethnic and democracy leaders are included in negotiations. Comprehensive and effective dialogue on the overall situation in Burma cannot be conducted without these leaders. Moreover, the U.S. must be careful to take no action that could be interpreted as endorsement of any misconduct or human rights lapses by the Burmese government or President Thein Sein, particularly while the Burmese government is still dominated by the military with a very brutal past.

Serious political dialogue within the framework of a robust peace process must take place to resolve the ongoing conflicts among Burma’s ethnic and religious groups. The plight of the Kachin is often overlooked by the international community, and humanitarian conditions are seriously deteriorating in Kachin State and Kachin refugee camps. Since the Burma Army broke the ceasefire agreement in Kachin State in June 2011, at least 70,000 civilians have been displaced from their villages. The atrocities committed against the Kachin by the Burma Army may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity and should be zealously investigated and prosecuted as the evidence warrants. During President Obama’s meeting with President Thein Sein, President Obama should call for a withdrawal of Burmese troops and the establishment of meaningful political dialogue and a peace process that will result in a political solution for the conflict in Kachin State.

Violence by the Burma Army against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State also continues with impunity and the Burmese government has failed to end what increasingly appears to be a campaign to forcibly displace thousands of Rohingya. Moreover, recent reports indicate that Burmese security forces have been complicit with Rakhine Buddhists in carrying out brutal attacks against the Rohingya people. Within the past few weeks alone, thousands of homes in Rakhine State have been destroyed, hundreds of people slaughtered, and over 100,000 displaced. Both the Rohingya and Kachin desperately need full access to humanitarian aid for internally displaced peoples and refugees. Indeed, now is the time for the U.S. to ensure the plight of vulnerable Rohingya are not forgotten and stress that this crisis against Burma’s Muslim population will threaten future democracy measures within Burma.

Burma still has a very long road ahead and the U.S. must continue to advocate for the full inclusion of vulnerable ethnic and religious groups within Burmese society and the political process. Mr. Obama’s visit to Burma signifies our developing bilateral relationship and desire to encourage U.S. business investment in the country. With the additional credibility and validation that a presidential visit gives to the Burmese government, specific reform agenda items should be on the table, including the cessation of violence against the Kachin, Rohingya and other minority groups.

Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, is co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus.

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