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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Burma’s Political Prisoners and U.S. Sanctions



Michael F. Martin
Acting Section Research Manager/Specialist in Asian Affairs

The installation of the Union Government in 2011 and the undertaking of initial reforms have raised the prospects for the resumption of a democratically elected civilian government in Burma after five decades of military rule. The release of Burma’s political prisoners has a central role in U.S. policy and Burma’s political future. Many of the U.S. sanctions on Burma were implemented after Burma’s ruling military junta suppressed protests and detained many political prisoners. In addition, the removal of many of the existing U.S. sanctions requires the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

Similarly, hopes for a democratic government in Burma—as well as national reconciliation— would depend on the release of prisoners associated with the country’s ethnic groups. Several ethnic-based political parties have stated they will not participate in parliamentary elections until their members are released from custody. Also, prospects for stable ceasefires and lasting peace with various ethnic-based militias may require the release of their members currently in detention.

Estimates of how many political prisoners are being detained in Burma vary greatly. In November 2011, President Thein Sein stated that there are no political prisoners in Burma because everyone in detention had committed a crime. Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko told the press in January 2012 that 128 dissidents remain in detention. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP(B), a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying and locating political prisoners in Burma, the Burmese government may have as many as 914 political prisoners in its 42 prisons and 109 labor camps scattered across the country.

Differences in the estimates of the number of political prisoners in Burma can be attributed to two main factors. First, Burma’s prison and judicial system is not transparent, making it difficult to obtain accurate information. Second, there is no consensus on the definition of a “political prisoner.” Some limit the definition of “political prisoner” to “prisoners of conscience” (people who are detained for peaceful political opposition). The AAPP(B) includes “anyone who is arrested because of his or her perceived or real involvement in or supporting role in opposition movements with peaceful or resistance means.”

Since his appointment in April 2011, President Thein Sein has granted amnesty to selected prisoners on six separate occasions. In total, the Union Government has released 28,838 prisoners, of which 745 were political prisoners, according to the AAPP(B).

The State Department is actively discussing the political prisoner issue—including the definition of political prisoners—with the Burmese government, opposition political parties, and representatives of some ethnic groups. In these discussions, U.S. officials emphasize the importance of the release of all political prisoners for the removal of U.S. sanctions on Burma.

The status of Burma’s political prisoners is likely to figure prominently in any congressional consideration of U.S. policy in Burma. Congress may choose to examine the political prisoner issue in Burma either separately or as part of a broader review of U.S. policy towards Burma. Congress may also consider taking up legislation—on its own or in response to a request from the Obama Administration—to amend, modify, or remove some of the existing sanctions on Burma.



Date of Report: October 19, 2012
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R42363
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U.S. Sanctions on Burma



Michael F. Martin
Acting Section Research Manager/Specialist in Asian Affairs

Existing U.S. sanctions on Burma are based on various U.S. laws and presidential executive orders. This report provides a brief history of U.S. policy towards Burma and the development of U.S. sanctions, a topical summary of those sanctions, and an examination of additional sanctions that have been considered, but not enacted, by Congress, or that could be imposed under existing law or executive orders. It also discusses recent easing of some of those sanctions and provisions under which additional sanctions could be waived or removed. The report concludes with a discussion of options for Congress.

The current U.S. sanctions on Burma were enacted, for the most part, due to what the U.S. government saw as a general disregard by Burma’s ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), for the human rights and civil liberties of the people of Burma. The actions of the new quasi-civilian government in Burma have led the Obama Administration to waive some of the existing sanctions in an effort to promote further reforms and to support perceived pro-reform Burmese government officials. The easing of U.S. sanctions has been generally timed to correspond with a significant political development in Burma-U.S. relations.

Burma-specific sanctions began following the Burmese military’s violent suppression of popular protests in 1988, and have continued through several subsequent periods in which Congress perceived major human rights violations in Burma. The result is a web of overlapping sanctions with differing restrictions, waiver provisions, expiration conditions, and reporting requirements.

The United States currently imposes sanctions specifically on Burma via six laws and five presidential documents. These sanctions can be generally divided into several broad categories, such as visa bans, restrictions on financial services, prohibitions of Burmese imported goods, a ban on new investments in Burma, and constraints on U.S. assistance to Burma. Past Congresses have considered a variety of additional, stricter sanctions on Burma.

In addition to the targeted sanctions, Burma is currently subject to certain sanctions specified in U.S. laws based on various functional issues. In many cases, the type of assistance or relations restricted or prohibited by these provisions is also addressed under Burma-specific sanction laws. The functional issues include the use of child soldiers, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, failure to protect religious freedoms, violations of workers’ rights, and threats to world peace and the security of the United States.

On March 30, 2011, SPDC formally dissolved itself and transferred power to the new Union Government, headed by President Thein Sein, ex-general and prime minister for the SPDC. On six separate occasions since his appointment, President Thein Sein has ordered the release of prisoners, including a number of political prisoners. The Union Government has also initiated ceasefire talks with various ethnic-based militias, and altered laws that allowed opposition parties to participate in parliamentary by-elections held on April 1, 2012. However, the continuation of serious human rights abuses has raised questions about the extent to which there has been significant political change in Burma.

The 112th Congress may consider either the imposition of additional sanctions or the removal of some of the existing sanctions, depending on the conduct of Burma’s new Union Government and other developments in Burma.



Date of Report: October 19, 2012
Number of Pages: 47
Order Number: R41336
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Monday, October 22, 2012

U.S.-Taiwan Relationship: Overview of Policy Issues



Shirley A. Kan
Specialist in Asian Security Affairs

Wayne M. Morrison
Specialist in Asian Trade and Finance


The purpose and scope of this CRS report is to provide a succinct overview with analysis of the issues in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. This report will be updated as warranted. Taiwan formally calls itself the sovereign Republic of China (ROC), tracing its political lineage to the ROC set up after the revolution in 1911 in China. The ROC government retreated to Taipei in 1949. The United States recognized the ROC until the end of 1978 and has maintained a non-diplomatic relationship with Taiwan after recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing in 1979. The State Department claims an “unofficial” U.S. relationship with Taiwan, despite official contacts that include arms sales. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, P.L. 96-8, has governed policy in the absence of a diplomatic relationship or a defense treaty. Other key statements that guide policy are the three U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqu├ęs of 1972, 1979, and 1982; as well as the “Six Assurances” of 1982. (See also CRS Report RL30341, China/Taiwan: Evolution of the “One China” Policy—Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei.)

For decades, Taiwan has been of significant security, economic, and political interest to the United States. In 2011, Taiwan was the 10th-largest U.S. trading partner and the 6th-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports. Taiwan is a major innovator of information technology (IT) products. Ties or tension across the Taiwan Strait affect international security (with potential U.S. intervention), the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, and U.S.-PRC cooperation. While the United States does not diplomatically recognize Taiwan, it is a significant autonomous actor in the world. Today, 23 countries including the Vatican have diplomatic relations with Taiwan as the ROC. Taiwan’s 23 million people enjoy self-governance with free elections. After Taiwan’s presidential election in 2008, the United States congratulated Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy.” Taiwan’s democracy has allowed its people a greater say in their status, given competing party politics about Taiwan’s national political identity and priorities. Taiwan held presidential and legislative elections on January 14, 2012. Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou won re-election against the candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Since Taiwan and the PRC resumed their quasi-official dialogue in 2008 under President Ma and cross-strait tension decreased, some have stressed concerns about steps seen as needed to be taken by the United States and by Taiwan to strengthen their relationship. Another approach has viewed closer cross-strait engagement as allowing U.S. attention to shift to expand cooperation with a rising China, which opposes U.S. arms sales and other dealings with Taiwan. In any case, Washington and Taipei have put more efforts into their respective relations with Beijing, while contending that they have pursued a positive, parallel U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou seeks U.S. support for his policies, including Taiwan’s inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Other policy issues concern whether to approve arms sales, reach an extradition treaty, resume Cabinet-level visits, and resume trade talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). The United States has concerns about Taiwan’s restrictions on U.S. beef, even as Taiwan seeks support in international organizations.

Legislation in the 112th Congress include H.Con.Res. 39, H.Con.Res. 77, H.Con.Res. 122, H.R. 2583, H.R. 2918, H.R. 2992, H.R. 4310, H.R. 5902, H.R. 6313, H.Res. 352, H.Res. 616, S. 1539, S. 1545, S.Con.Res. 17, and S.Res. 542. Other congressional actions have focused on arms sales, particularly the issue of whether to sell F-16C/D fighters. (See CRS Report RL30957, Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990.)



Date of Report: October 10, 2012
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41952
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