New leaders are emerging on Capitol Hill to draw a line on Congress’s acquiescence to the White House’s rush to lift comprehensive sanctions on Burma.

Congressmen Trent Franks (R–AZ), Rush Holt (D–NJ), and Trey Gowdy (R–SC) are pressing for strict conditionality on the provision of military assistance to Burma. In a letter to House appropriators, they have requested bill language that would withhold military assistance for Burma unless the Administration certifies that:

  • The Burmese military is no longer committing “widespread human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war in Burma” and is cooperating with civilian investigations of human rights violations;
  • “The Government of Burma has amended its constitution and laws to ensure civilian control of the military and implemented reforms to increase the transparency and accountability of the military’s budget and operations, and the Burmese military has taken substantial and meaningful steps to divest itself from ownership of commercial businesses”; and
  • “The Government of Burma is allowing free and unfettered access to all areas in Burma, including any conflict areas and areas of unrest when requested by humanitarian organizations, human rights monitors,” and the United Nations “and has shown meaningful and well-documented efforts to promote peace agreements or political reconciliation in conflict areas or areas of unrest.”

Congress should go even further. On military assistance, it should find a way to also condition the participation of Burmese military personnel in joint exercises with U.S. forces. As was pointed out on a Heritage Foundation stage in February by former long-time Hill staffer and Asia expert Frank Jannuzi, Burma’s observer status in this year’s Cobra Gold exercises, led by the U.S. and Thailand, “granted legitimacy to an army that has not earned it.” It is particularly troubling, given the continued egregious human rights violations, that one of Washington’s most prominent human rights advocacy groups is today calling “ethnic cleansing.”

Congress should also give the Administration a hand in setting concrete benchmarks for Burma’s reforms and indicate what exactly would constitute cause for re-imposition of sanctions. Without legal specificity, the Administration and interest groups can always skirt the rhetorical commitment to seeing the reforms through.

Congressman Franks and his colleagues recognize the reforms that have been underway in Burma. However, they also recognize the uncertainty of the reforms’ future. Disturbing inter-communal violence underscores the reforms’ fragility. The Burmese military remains firmly in control of the government and maintains the power to end Burma’s opening at any time. The action-for-action approach that the Administration used to account for this reality may have gone by the boards, but it is not too late to re-impose some accountability on its policy.

Congressmen Franks and his colleagues have stepped up to begin that process. Kudos to them. Let’s hope their leadership catches on.