Twenty-two nongovernmental groups on Thursday pushed U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to step up sanctions on Burma, saying the new quasi-civilian government in the Southeast Asian state seems unwilling to adopt democratic reforms.
The groups, including the largest federation of unions in the United States, called for stiff banking sanctions similar to those that were imposed on Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi has cracked down brutally on dissent.
The new sanctions on Burma should target banks holding the government’s hard currency reserves and financing its economic activities, the NGOs said in a letter to Obama.
"As we have seen in the case of Libya, financial sanctions can be effective when implemented vigorously, backed by the full enforcement powers of the Department of the Treasury," they said.
"If your administration is indeed committed to 'maintaining' sanctions against the Burmese government, it should be doing everything in its power to maintain their effectiveness."
The call came four days after the number two diplomat at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, D.C. defected and sought political asylum in the United States.
Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win, 59, told RFA he made the decision to leave the government because he sees little hope for Burma’s future.
He said he had expected the government to begin a transition to democracy after historic elections last November but added that nothing has changed and that “the military continues to hold uncontested power.”
“Senior military officials are consolidating their grip on power and seeking to stamp out the voices of those seeking democracy,” he said.
Aung Din, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, among the 22 groups which sent the letter to Obama, said he hopes the U.S. leader will step up the pressure on the Burmese government.
“I am hoping that this letter from very respected human rights organizations in the United States and the recent defection of the regime’s senior diplomat in Washington, D.C. will make President Obama realize how much we need his leadership and personal involvement to respond to the situation in Burma with strongest pressure and time-bound engagement.”
It has been almost two years since the Obama administration launched a new engagement policy with the Burmese government.
But its calls for an unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners, establishment of a substantive dialogue with democratic forces, and allowing of humanitarian assistance to populations affected by armed conflict have all gone unheeded by the Burmese authorities.
"The Burmese government has given your administration no reason to believe that more diplomacy, absent greater internal and external pressure, will persuade it to change course," the NGOs said.
The groups also include the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Carter Center, Freedom House, Project 2049 Institute, Perseus Strategies, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights.
"The time has come for the United States to use the levers of pressure at its disposal, and implement in full the banking sanctions authorized in the JADE Act," they said.
Under the Act, the Department of Treasury has placed the names of a number of Burmese officials and entities on a blacklist and subjected them to sanctions.
But the NGOs said the impact of such sanctions diminishes over time as the targets find ways to move their assets to other countries, use the euro instead of the U.S. dollar in their transactions, and set up front companies to cover up their real identities and businesses.
"Therefore, it is crucial that the additional sanctions contained in the JADE Act, which allow the Treasury Department to target banks holding the Burmese government’s hard currency reserves and financing its economic activities, be fully implemented," the groups said.
Probe on war crimes
They also called on Obama to mobilize support for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. The proposed Commission has been recommended by U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana and is supported by Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
The need for such a Commission has only increased in the last several weeks with the escalation of armed conflict in Burma’s ethnic areas, they said.
"Between May and June of this year, scores of ethnic villages were destroyed, hundreds of ethnic people and common prisoners were used as porters and human minesweepers, and the property and belongings of ethnic minorities were looted by the Burmese army."
They also charged that villagers have been "arrested, tortured and killed" by Burmese troops on accusations that they were supporters of the ethnic resistance groups.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.