US “Waiver” a means to an end for Burma

Published on October 21, 2006

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – October 21, 2006

October 19, 2006 Media Release of the U.S. State Department says:  “The Secretary of State, on October 11, exercised her discretionary exemption authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act, so that Chin refugees from Burma living in Malaysia, Thailand, and India can resettle in the United States…..” This development is partly the recognition of the plights of ethnic people in the Union of Burma.

When the State Department granted a waiver for Karen refugees in Thailand, it considered as a test case; it now appears that the test was successful partially if not in its entirety. This being the third time in this year – May, August and October – to waive provisions of the US Patriot Act of 2001 and the Real ID Act of 2005, “waiver” has become a means to an end for Burma.

In the USA PATRIOT Act – passed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States – and the Real ID Act of 2005, the U.S. government broadened the definition of a “terrorist organization” as any group of two or more people who bear arms with the intent to endanger the safety of any individual.

In addition, the definition of material support was broadly defined in general categories, such as, transportation, communications, funds, or other material financial benefit. This has barred many asylum seekers and refugees from entering the United States. Under the US Immigration Nationality Act, refugees are not eligible for resettlement without the Secretary of State’s waiver.

Meanwhile, Burma’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council, on October 10, 2006 reconvened its years’ long drawn National Convention – first convened in 1993 – which they consider as first of the seven steps toward “Road map to democracy.” Simultaneously, arrest and political intimidations have been unabated – three leading 1988 democracy uprising leaders – Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Htay Kywe – were arrested on September 27.

Another student activist, Thet Win Aung, who was arrested and then incarcerated in 1998 for protesting poor quality of education and denial of human rights, died in prison on October 16 – both incidents were condemned by the US government.

The United States is seen engaging on Burma at different levels. On September 29, for the first time in history, Burma was placed in the permanent agenda of the U.N. Security Council. On another front, Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration during her August tour to Tham Hin refugee camp at Thai-Burma border, was hopeful that waivers would be forthcoming for other ethnic minority groups who are fleeing Burma’s military regime. She added, “We began with the Karen. We’re working on a similar waiver for the Chin in Malaysia.”

In his briefing to reporters on May 5, 2006, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “This waiver is not a guarantee that individuals might be resettled in the United States, but merely something that allows the Department of Homeland Security to consider them as potentially eligible.” To this effect, Karen refugees have begun to resettle in the United States of America.

According to the State Department fact sheet, the Burmese refugees, particularly Karen refugees, have been identified as a population of special humanitarian concern to the United States due to the privations they have experienced during and since their flight from Burma and due to the lack of any other durable solution.

Under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should ensure protection of vulnerable persons basically in three ways – (i) voluntarily repatriating to their homeland (ii) integrate in countries of asylum (iii) resettle in third countries. In the case of Burma, the United States and few other European countries are opting for the third option – resettling in third countries.

Despite assumptions that the US foreign policy is beleaguered by murky scenarios of sectarian killings in Iraq and the recent claimed nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, it is apparent that the people of Southeast Asian nation are not out of the loop.

The announcement of this waiver coincides with the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Asia in an effort to convince North Korean neighbors to implement the UN Security Council resolution number 1718 (2006) adopted at its 5551st meeting on 14 October 2006.

With the September 29th U.N. Security Council’s briefing on Burma and the ongoing military junta National Convention having no immediate solution, the United States is exploring for alternative means to address the plights of the Burmese people. Provided that refugees pose no danger to the safety and security of the United States, more waivers can be anticipated.

Given the gradual developments, the United States is apparently preparing to use “waiver” as a means to an end for the lives of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).