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Monday, December 30, 2013

Burma's Political Prisoners and U.S. Sanctions - R42363

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The release of Burma’s political prisoners has a central role in U.S. policy and Burma’s political future. Many of the sanctions that the U.S. began imposing on Burma in the late 1980s 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.

Burma’s President Thein Sein pledged during his July 2013 trip to the United Kingdom to release all the political prisoners in his country by the end of the year. Since his announcement, he has granted amnesty on three occasions to a total of 198 people. Different sources provide varying estimates on the number of political prisoners that remain in detention. In addition, according to some observers, the Thein Sein government is using old and new laws to arrest and convict protesters, dissidents, and human rights advocates, creating dozens of new political prisoners, raising doubts about the President’s ability to fulfil his pledge.

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. 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 be holding over 200 political prisoners in its prisons and labor camps scattered across the country. President Thein Sein has created the Political Prisoners Scrutiny Committee to identify possible political prisoners to be considered for amnesty or pardon.

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). One of the more critical issues in defining political prisoners is whether or not to include individuals who have been detained for their alleged association with Burma’s ethnic-based militias or their associated political parties.

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 further easing or 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: December 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42363
Price: $29.95

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Bangladesh Apparel Factory Collapse: Background in Brief - R43085

Mary Jane Bolle
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

The April 24, 2013, collapse of an eight-story garment factory, called Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,100 workers. It is reportedly now considered the deadliest accident in the history of the apparel industry. Congress has had a long-standing interest in supporting internationally recognized worker rights in developing countries, and the building collapse has raised concerns about worker conditions in Bangladesh.

Rana Plaza was allegedly structurally unsound and poorly maintained for apparel production. Apparel production is generally known as an industry under threat of fire, and one where workers need easy access to rapid escape routes. Issues relating to workers’ inability to effectively exercise their rights to organize, bargain collectively, and work in a safe workplace may have contributed to the tragedy. For example, workers reportedly noticed cracks in the building and resisted entering, and were told that if they did not report to their jobs, they would not be paid. The factory collapse brought international focus to those parts of global supply chains that may not meet basic safety and health standards.

The U.S. government supports internationally recognized worker rights through various policies and programs. These include U.S. trade preference programs, free trade agreements, foreign assistance, and Department of Labor initiatives.

Congressional and U.S. efforts in this regard are part of an international worker rights support structure in place to offer technical assistance and support to countries—especially developing countries. Other major parts of this structure include international organizations, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), founded in 1919; and corporate codes of conduct, which have arisen from a broader movement of corporate social responsibility that gained strength in the 1980s and 1990s.

Early analysis of the causes of the Bangladesh tragedy raises questions about what went wrong and about what can be done to help Bangladesh to improve working conditions at factories. Efforts to make changes in Bangladesh are already underway, and developments on this issue are evolving.

This report provides an overview of the recent tragedy in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh economic environment and culture. It also notes the responses to the tragedy, to date, from Congress, the Administration, the ILO, the Bangladesh government, and the private sector. Finally, it raises some possible issues for Congress.

Date of Report: December 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: R43085
Price: $29.95

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990 - RL30957

Shirley A. Kan
Specialist in Asian Security Affairs

This report, updated as warranted, discusses U.S. security assistance to Taiwan, or Republic of China (ROC), including policy issues for Congress and legislation. Congress has oversight of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), P.L. 96-8, which has governed arms sales to Taiwan since 1979, when the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) instead of the ROC. Two other relevant parts of the “one China” policy are the August 17, 1982, U.S.-PRC Joint Communique and the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been significant. The United States also expanded military ties with Taiwan after the PRC’s missile firings in 1995-1996. However, the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty terminated in 1979.

At the last U.S.-Taiwan annual arms sales talks on April 24, 2001, President George W. Bush approved for possible sale diesel-electric submarines, P-3 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft (linked to the submarine sale), four decommissioned U.S. Kidd-class destroyers, and other items. Bush also deferred decisions on Aegis-equipped destroyers and other items, while denying other requests. Afterward, attention turned to Taiwan, where the military, civilian officials, and legislators from competing political parties debated contentious issues about how much to spend on defense and which U.S. weapons to acquire, despite the increasing threat (including a missile buildup) from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Pentagon also has broadened its concern from Taiwan’s arms purchases to its defense spending, seriousness in self-defense and protection of secrets, joint capabilities, deterrence, operational readiness, critical infrastructure protection, and innovative, asymmetrical advantages. Blocked by the Kuomintang (KMT) party in the Legislative Yuan (LY) that opposed the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP’s) president (2000- 2008), the Special Budget (not passed) for submarines, P-3C ASW aircraft, and PAC-3 missile defense systems was cut from $18 billion in 2004 to $9 billion (for submarines only) in 2005. In March 2006, Taiwan’s defense minister requested a 2006 Supplemental Defense Budget (not passed) in part for submarine procurement, P-3Cs, and PAC-2 upgrades (not new PAC-3 missiles). In June 2007, the LY passed Taiwan’s 2007 defense budget with funds for P-3C planes, PAC-2 upgrades, and F-16C/D fighters. In December 2007, the LY approved $62 million to start the submarine design phase. After the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou became President in May 2008, he resumed cross-strait talks, reduced tension, and kept the arms requests. However, Ma has failed to increase defense budgets to a bipartisan goal of budgeting at 3% of GDP to invest in defense.

Attention also turned to U.S. decisions on pending arms sales. In 2008, congressional concerns mounted about a suspected “freeze” in President Bush’s notifications to Congress on arms sales. On October 3, 2008, Bush finally notified Congress. However, he submitted six of the eight pending programs (not a “package”) for a combined value of $6.5 billion.

Despite the concerns in 2008, President Obama repeated that cycle to wait to submit formal notifications for congressional review all at one time (on January 29, 2010) of five major programs with a total value of $6.4 billion and again (on September 21, 2011) of three major programs with a total value of $5.9 billion, including upgrades for Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighters. Like Bush, President Obama has not notified the sub design program (the only one pending from decisions in 2001) and has not accepted Taiwan’s formal request for new F-16C/D fighters (pending since 2006). Taiwan is interested in U.S. Navy excess Perry-class frigates.

Legislation in the 113
th Congress includes H.R. 419 (Ros-Lehtinen), S. 12 (Coats), H.R. 1960 (McKeon), H.R. 3470 (Royce), S. 1197 (Levin), and S. 1683 (Menendez). See “Major Congressional Action” for discussion of legislation and other congressional actions.

Date of Report: November 27, 2013
Number of Pages: 61
Order Number: RL30957
Price: $29.95

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