On July 9, the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on human rights in Southeast Asia.
The representatives focused, in particular, on human rights violations in The Republic Union of Myanmar (Burma). Over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims, a minority group in Burma, have been expelled from their homes and placed into internally displaced persons camps.
Republican and Democratic representatives alike recognize the human rights abuses occurring in Burma. The Republican chair of the committee, Representative Ed Royce, drew similarities between IDP camps and concentration camps. Democratic Representative David Cicilline criticized the actions of the government and radical Buddhists. Further, he questioned whether or not the situation could be labeled genocide.
Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman and human rights activist, testified that the situation qualifies as genocide.
The House previously took action to protect the rights of the Rohingya in May, when they passed Resolution 418 “urging the Government of Burma to end the persecution of the Rohingya people and respect internationally recognized human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups within Burma.”
Proposed by Representative James McGovern, D-MA, in November 2013, the resolution was co-sponsored by 50 representatives across party lines. The resolution identified the high number of Rohingya expelled from their homes and significant limitations on their access to healthcare, education and general safety, as well as violence toward non-Rohingya Muslims.
Following these observations, the House recommended that the Burmese government make greater progress toward “democracy, constitutional reform, and national reconciliation,” end persecution of the Rohingya and recognize Rohingya citizenship.
The House also called upon the U.S. government to take action by putting “consistent pressure” on the Burmese government to end discrimination and to focus on Burma’s human rights violations when dealing with the government of Burma.
The actions of the House of Representatives starkly contrasts with statements made by President Obama. On May 20, the U.S. President met with President Thein Sein of Myanmar. In public statements, he complimented the increase in democracy and representation of all groups in Myamnar, though the Rhoningya are still not considered citizens.
Though, he did call attention to the “communal violence” inflicted on Muslims, he lauded the government for its successful transition from a military to a civilian-led government and release of political prisoners.
In a speech at West Point on May 28, the president described the U.S. foreign policy in Burma as a success. He stated, “Thanks to the enormous courage of the people in that country, and because we took the diplomatic initiative, American leadership, we have seen political reforms opening a once-closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.”
Though the House called on the president to take action by putting pressure on the Burmese government, the actions of President Obama suggest that the “consistent pressure” will not be intense. Furthermore, this approach suggests that the president does prioritize the image of a democratic government over true democratic governance when considering whether or not a country is a diplomatic success.
Continual pressure on the president, along with continued attention to the increasing human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims by both citizens and congressional leaders, could push the federal government to take more significant action.
– Tara Wilson