Friday, October 2, 2009

US Senate AWOL on Burma

At a recent Senate hearing, monks vastly outnumbered  senators.   

News that a major shift is underway with regards to US policy towards Burma has coincided with reports from Amnesty International that Nyi Nyi Aung (also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin), an American citizen, was taken prisoner by Myanmar in early September and tortured (More about that here).

Given that the Obama Administration is overturning longstanding US policy towards Burma -- and the questionable timing  -- you would think that most senators on the Asian and Pacific Affairs Sub-committee of the United States Senate would have shown up at Wednesday's hearing to ask challenging  questions of Assistant Sec. of State Campbell.

How many senators showed up?    

Only one.  (Above photo, click to enlarge.)  Sen. Jim Webb, the sub-committee chairman.

Sen. Webb, a Democrat, strongly advocates engagement with Burma

Sen. Webb did his best to chair the meeting, but one of the main purposes for holding such hearings is for the legislature to have an opportunity to hold the executive branch accountable.  This is not a task for one senator alone, particularly a like-minded senator from the same party as the administration.  

So I decide to investigate what other senators on the sub-committee had been doing Wednesday afternoon after 2:30pm.  What was more important to the other eight senators than cross-examining Kurt Campbell (right), the American who -- "just 16 hours" previously -- had wrapped up the first high-level meeting between the US and Myanmar in many years.

Here's what I learned: . . .

Jim Webb (Virginia)
Republicans:  None.

Democrats: Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Barbara Boxer (California), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Barbara Boxer (California), Christopher Dodd (Connecticut), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York).
Republicans:  James Inhofe (Oklahoma),  Roger Wicker (Mississippi),  John Barrasso (Wyoming)

As chairman of the committee, Sen. Webb (photo left) was responsible for notifying other Democrats on the committee of the meeting.  A spokesman for Webb told me these senators had been informed of the meeting.  Non-attendees included Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, and New York senators. They represent states where constituents are known to have a particularly keen interest in Burma's democracy movement and Aug San Suu Kyi.  Where were these senators?  What was happening at 2:30pm yesterday afternoon that was so much more important than Burma?  Apart for Boxer and Dodd, I called all these Democrats' offices, and I am still waiting to hear back from them.. 

As ranking minority member of the sub-committee, Sen. James Inhofe is the second most important member of the committee after Webb.   Inhofe is responsible for notifying Republican members of the committee of the   meetings.   When I called Inhofe's office I was assured that Inhofe had notified the other members.  When I asked why Inhofe had not attended the meeting  I was told that he had to attend "an EPW press conference."  I was told, "Sen. Inhofe is ranking member of the EPW."

EPW stands for Environment and Public WorksSenator Boxer (also AWOL on Burma) heads that committee, which is charged with writing the Senate climate bill. Sen. Inhofe scheduled a press conference something called a Republican "Press Availability" session for the same time time-slot as the important hearing on Burma.  Fellow Republican, Sen. John Barrasso, also choose to attend the EPW press conference instead of the hearing on Burma.

I am still waiting to hear back from Republican Sen. Roger Wicker's office.

The main point here is that:  Two Republican members -- including Inhofe, the highest ranking Republican on the Burma committee -- decided that trashing Boxer's climate change bill took precedence over questioning a senior State Department official about a major policy shift in US-Burma relations.

Incidentally, at the "Republican Press Availability" session, when Inhofe was asked about whether he believed human activity may have contributed to global warming, Inhofe replied that he had run that question by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau:
. . . . we've asked that question of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, and the answer is no. They -- you know, their feeling is that God is still up there. We go through cycles and there's not that strong relationship between anthropogenic gases and climate change."
Attending senate hearings on foreign policy is not only about keeping the executive branch accountable, it's about being a well-informed senator.  Judging by Inhofe's remarks, America desperately needs more of those.*
* More senators like Chuck Lugar, the soon-to-retire senator from Indiana who -- although not a member of the sub-committee --  submitted  an interesting statement for the hearing record.

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