By Roland Watson
June 12, 2011

(Note: I have great respect for State Department Foreign Service Officers. I have often hoped that some day I too might render formal service to America.)

An event that has great significance for the cause of freedom and democracy in Burma occurred recently in Washington, D.C. On June 2, the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing - Religious Freedom, Democracy, Human Rights in Asia: Status of Implementation of the Tibetan Policy Act, Block Burmese JADE Act, and North Korean Human Rights Act.

The rationale for the hearing was obvious. The people of many different Arab societies are now rising up for human rights and democracy, which aspirations for the most part United States foreign policy has ignored - if not opposed. On the other hand, the U.S. - seemingly - has promoted democracy in such places as Tibet, Burma and North Korea, including with the passage of related laws. The representatives wanted to know: What is the status of these programs and the implementation of these laws?

Joseph Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, spoke regarding Burma and the JADE Act.

Mr. Yun made a lengthy testimony, but it was most notable for what he failed to discuss. Overall, one can conclude that his intention was to keep the committee in the dark, if not openly mislead it, about the most important issues for Burma, and the United States' position thereon.

A summary of his testimony is as follows:

The U.S. has a two-track approach towards Burma (dating to 2009): Pressure coupled with principled engagement. Principled engagement in turn is equated with direct dialogue with the regime.

The goals of U.S policy include the "unconditional release of all political prisoners, respect for human rights, and an inclusive dialogue with the political opposition and ethnic groups that would lead to national reconciliation"; and nonproliferation. Of note, democracy is not specifically mentioned in this list. Further, this is the only time, in his entire testimony, that the DAS referred to nonproliferation, and what he termed "Burma's nontransparent relationship with North Korea."

In his introductory remarks the DAS concluded that "progress remains elusive." This is diplomatic speak that the dual track approach has failed and is a waste of time.

In his detailed remarks, the DAS expressed Secretary Clinton's "commitment to pursuing accountability for human rights abuses through establishing a commission of inquiry..." The Burma pro-democracy movement continues to wait with baited breath for signs of the Secretary's commitment.

(Mr. Yun did disclose the huge level of internal conflict in Burma, even listing some of the regime's war crimes - "pillage, forced labor, killing and rape." But he also avoided discussing the possibility of foreign intervention to stop these crimes, and only referred to American support for refugees who have fled the country.)

The DAS then discussed different provisions of the JADE Act: The imposition of financial sanctions and visa bans on regime officials, and the appointment of a new "Special Representative" (Derek Mitchell, who has yet to approved by the Senate).

He then concluded his review of the law by saying, "Finally, the JADE Act bans the import of Burmese jadeite, rubies, and related jewelry ...," with a description of U.S. import controls.

This is where Mr. Yun personally was nontransparent if not openly deceitful. The JADE Act includes many other provisions, which are arguably at least as important to the achievement of U.S. policy goals as those he described.

Law text:

Section 10 of the law requires the State Department to prepare, and publish in unclassified form on its website, an annual Report on Military and Intelligence Aid to Burma. This report must include information about the regime's weapons of mass destruction programs, including their relationship with external parties such as North Korea. (Dictator Watch had a Freedom of Information Act filing requesting this report accepted by State's FOIA office on June 7, 2010. To-date, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, which DAS Yun heads, refuses to satisfy our request - most recently it has failed to reply to a FOIA "search tasker" sent in March - or otherwise to publish the report.) By not telling the committee the status of this report, and more importantly its contents - giving a brief on Burma's attempts at nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation - Mr. Yun ignored what is possibly the most pressing issue facing the United States in its relations with the regime.

Section 5(c) gives the government authority to impose additional banking sanctions regarding Burma, by prohibiting access to the U.S. banking system by any entity, including foreign banks, that do business in or with the country. This one step would be incredibly powerful. It would effectively isolate Burma financially from the rest of the world. No bank in Singapore, for example, would maintain accounts for regime officials and their business cronies if it meant losing the ability to work with U.S. financial institutions. But continuing his deceit, Mr. Yun failed to even comment on this option. He said that the first track of U.S. policy is to impose pressure, but then conveniently failed to mention the strongest weapon available outside of actual armed force.

Fortunately, Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma also testified at the hearing, and called for the JADE-authorized banking sanctions. He also discussed the pervasive influence of China on the Burmese regime, another point that Mr. Yun only touched upon at the end of his testimony. On the other hand, Ko Aung Din too did not mention the Section 10 report, which would have been helpful. However, the responsibility for estimating the WMD proliferation risk clearly falls to State, since through its contacts with intelligence agencies it is the only organization in a position to give a proper appraisal.

Section 11 conveys the sense of Congress on international arms sales to Burma, including that the United States should lead efforts to impose a mandatory international arms embargo. The DAS similarly failed to discuss this topic, even though the Security Council acted with alacrity in imposing such an embargo on Libya, for the types of attacks on civilians that have been underway in Burma for decades.

And - and this time I will say "finally," although there are other important provisions in the law as well - Section 15 conveys the sense of Congress that the U.S. "should lead by example" and urge American investors in the Yadana pipeline (Chevron Corp.), which provides at least $500 million to Burma's military regime every year, to disinvest.

Needless to say, DAS Yun ignored this subject as well. It is important to remember that the JADE Act was passed in July 2009, but its motivation derives from the crackdown on the Saffron Uprising in September 2008. The Act was passed virtually unanimously by the two houses of Congress shortly after the crackdown, but it got held up in committee - for nine months - since the House version of the law had a provision that would have forced Chevron to divest. It took this long before an agreement was reached, reportedly based on the position of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (California is Chevron's home state) to eliminate this provision and to substitute the weak "Sense of Congress."

Indeed, perhaps I am being too hard on Joseph Yun. In my years of working on Burma I have met over three dozen State Department staff, and they were all intelligent and motivated and absolutely understood the real nature of the country's regime. But they also knew that the U.S. would never take the types of actions, even banking sanctions, that might dislodge the generals. Their job was to manage - and try to explain - this discrepancy, until they could rotate to another post. DAS Yun, and even Special Representative Mitchell, are merely punching a career ticket. Neither will have any real influence on the Burma democracy calculus until much deeper issues are addressed.

There is a conspiracy of silence about Burma. Maybe it's the influence of Chevron, which is the only tangible U.S. interest in the country, or perhaps it is closed door diplomatic kowtowing to China. In any case, there is a fundamental friction between the true situation, and what the U.S. says, and it is the State Department which must try to explain - to obfuscate - this deviation. Unfortunately, it even rises to the Presidency. State Department secretaries and even presidents - of either party - are merely instruments of America's true and unwavering policy. When President Clinton signed the first Burma sanctions bill in 1997, and which forbid investment, Unocal, later acquired by Chevron, was given a pass. None of the presidents or secretaries of state since then have been willing to stand up to industry, or China.

Ordinary people in the Middle East mistrust the U.S. for similar reasons. Washington supports their own dictators, at their personal expense. The people of Burma aren't stupid, either. They too can see through the lies and deceit. DAS Yun's testimony was meticulously prepared. It is dishonest when the United States says that it cares but really doesn't. If you did care, you would use all the tools that you have available. Moreover, it is contemptible when the nation that first systematically established the democratic system, and at huge cost, refuses to support it sincerely for other repressed peoples around the world.

The United States Government should stop trying to play it both ways. America should be on the right side of history. Starting with the people of China, and Saudi Arabia, who are under the boot heels of the autocratic rulers that geopolitics suggests the U.S. would least want to upset, President Obama should support, loudly, repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, and with more than just words, the citizens of all repressed nations in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

This is an example of the type of real change that the President promised, but has yet to deliver.

(Post-publication note:

Proof of the critical importance of the WMD proliferation issue, which Joseph Yun failed to review for Congress.

"US intercepted N. Korea ship over arms fears

SEOUL (AFP) – Monday June 13
The US Navy intercepted a North Korean ship suspected of carrying missiles or other weapons to Myanmar and made it turn back, a senior US official said Monday. The comments by Gary Samore, special assistant to President Barack Obama on weapons of mass destruction, confirmed reports of the incident, which happened last month, in The New York Times and South Korean media. The New York Times said the ship was intercepted south of the Chinese city of Shanghai by a US destroyer on May 26.")