BURMA Act Debate Pushed into Early 2024

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By Ketrin Agustine

BURMA Act Debate Pushed into Early 2024

The debate over U.S. aid to Myanmar will remain unresolved until at least early next year, as U.S. lawmakers once again this week delayed passage of a final budget for 2024.

U.S. lawmakers are expected to pass a short-term continuing resolution that will fund the government at current levels through early next year that includes the BURMA Act, passed as part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization or NDAA.

But the 2024 version of the budget will require the Senate and the House to reconcile differing visions of how to proceed with aid to Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The version of the 2024 budget produced by the Democratic-majority U.S. Senate would appropriate more money to funding humanitarian assistance and democracy promotion programs in Myanmar.

But activists have expressed concern about the delay and the version of the budget passed by the Republican-majority House of Representatives that would defund some programs.

“We are urging that Congress appropriate sufficient money to implement the BURMA Act while continuing essential assistance in the face of ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Burma,” the Campaign for a New Myanmar said in a statement.

In its annual 2024 fiscal year markup of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs budget, released in July of this year, U.S. House lawmakers recommended $50 million to implement the current BURMA Act while also recommending a reduction of $1.4 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID’s development assistance.

In July 2023, Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow administration run from hiding and exile vying to oust the junta, and a trio of allied ethnic minority rebel armies, told VOA they had asked the U.S. Congress for $525 million in aid, including $200 million in nonlethal humanitarian aid. That number would be four times the $136 million previously appropriated by Congress.

Current Myanmar Funding

The Burma Unification through Rigorous Military Accountability or BURMA Act was a response to the February 1, 2021, coup in which Myanmar’s democratically elected government was deposed by the military.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – a leading voice in the U.S. Congress supporting democracy in Myanmar – marked the second anniversary of the coup on the Senate floor by praising the BURMA Act.

“It made sanctions on senior junta officials mandatory,” McConnell said in February 2023, “Finally, the NDAA also notably authorized funding for programs to strengthen federalism in and among ethnic states in Burma, and for technical support and non-lethal assistance to Burma’s ethnic armed organizations and People’s Defense Forces to strengthen communication, command and control, and coordination of international relief and other operations between these entities.”

According to the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank, “it remains unclear if any new programs were created since December 2022. At this point, the U.S. continues to promote humanitarian aid as its unchanged policy towards Myanmar.”

The United States has provided “nearly $2.1 billion since the military’s genocide and crimes against humanity towards the Rohingya that led 740,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017,” Michael Schiffer, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told House lawmakers in September 2023.

Late last month, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that starting in December, it will prohibit Americans from providing financial services to or for Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. The Treasury Department also sanctioned three new entities and five individuals connected to Myanmar’s military regime.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the author of the BURMA Act, praised the move in a statement.

“These sanctions will disrupt the junta’s access to the U.S. financial system and curtail its ability to commit further human rights violations. The United States and our partners must utilize all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to compel the junta to cease its atrocities, release unjustly detained individuals, facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access, and chart a pathway back toward democracy,” Meeks said.

Zsombor Peter contributed to this report.

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