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US Senator McCain’s Calls for “Concrete Action” Distorted by Regime

By Burma Partnership  •  June 6, 2011

Last week, US Senator John McCain embarked on a three-day trip to Burma to assess potential progress towards democratic reform since the November 2010 elections. At the conclusion of the trip, Senator McCain said at a press briefing that US sanctions on the country would remain in place until “concrete actions” are taken to improve the human rights and political situation, and warned the regime that it could face an Arab-style revolution if no progress is made. McCain went on to call for the release of all political prisoners, the guarantee of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s safety during her upcoming tour through Burma, a democratic process of national reconciliation and fulfilling non-proliferation obligations under international law.

During his visit, Senator McCain met with senior leaders in the regime, political opposition leaders, ethnic leaders and former political prisoners. He also met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to listen to her views on the US’ Burma policy.

This visit came at a time when both the United States and Burma would like to improve their bilateral relationship. Under President Obama, the United States adopted a policy that combines sanctions and engagement, a policy that continues to be debated by members of Congress. McCain’s trip to Burma also followed two high-profile visits from the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy Vijay Nambiar and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana’s trip to the Thai-Burma border. The latter two stated that major steps were still needed towards political reform, respect for human rights and justice in the country.

Nevertheless, Burma’s military regime hoped that McCain’s visit could result in warmer ties with the US and tried to take the opportunity to deceive the world by projecting an image of the country being on the track to democracy. However, in a misguided attempt to project a positive image and hide the reality of the human rights situation in the country, the regime shamelessly distorted McCain’s views about Burma, contradicting the statement made at his press briefing. State-run media reports focused mostly on what officials told the Senator, while others repeated the usual, outrageous propaganda and directly contradicted McCain’s statements made during his press briefing. According to The New Light of Myanmar, the US Senator “believes and accepts [Burma] is on the right track”, sees “many changes in [Burma]” and “will let the US government and his colleagues know that they need to start to talk with [Burma].” On the contrary, if McCain briefly acknowledged “some changes” in the country during his press briefing, he mostly expressed an unquestionable disappointment with Burma’s lack of improvement of the human rights and political situation. He said that any improvement in relations between Burma and the US “will need to be built not on warm words, but on concrete actions.” Overall, McCain’s comments were clearly condemning of the ongoing situation in Burma.

Among other calls, the US Senator asked for the “unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience,” and called on Burma to allow the International Red Cross “unfettered” access to all prisoners in the country. By doing so, he deliberately ignored the regime’s consistent denial of the existence of political prisoners in Burma, which is a critical barrier to concrete progress towards democracy and national reconciliation.

Regarding conflicts with ethnic groups, the regime reportedly told Senator McCain that the majority of ethnic leaders are working “hand in hand with the government in accordance with the constitution,” that they have provided some of them with aid and land allotments, and that the remaining “antigovernment” groups “can return to the legal fold at any time, the government is responsible for their basic needs.” Such statements show that the regime continues to flatly deny that the Burma Army has and continues to perpetrate abuse against ethnic communities, despite decades of overwhelming evidence of widespread and systematic violations of human rights. This situation has worsened since the fraudulent elections in November 2010, with increased instability and outbreaks of conflict between the Burma Army and armed ethnic groups. Acknowledging this situation, Senator McCain expressed the urgent need to begin a democratic process of national reconciliation, which, to be deemed legitimate, “would have to involve Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic minority and other opposition leaders.”

The international community should not be fooled by the regime’s rhetoric and empty actions. The fraudulent elections in 2010, the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from her expired house arrest, the false amnesty of 55 political prisoners and the granting of visas to officials such as Senator McCain do not suggest that this regime is genuinely committed to the realization of human rights and democracy. Behind these symbolic acts, the truth is very different: political prisoners languish in jail, draconian laws remain in place, and attacks against ethnic civilians have continued, even escalated in some areas.

The rhetoric of the regime remains unconvincing and clearly illustrates the regime’s ongoing resistance to progressing toward a stable, democratic and unified Burma. Senator McCain has joined many other high-profile people in calling for a Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. A UN-led Commission of Inquiry is one of the few avenues that could deliver accountability and justice for the people of Burma who have faced ongoing, serious human rights abuses for far too long. The international community must take decisive action immediately to stop these violations.

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