In my capacity as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and Member of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, I just returned from a Codel to Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and Yemen. I’ll touch on all three countries in the order that I visited them.
First, Laos. To be honest, most Americans probably haven’t thought a lot about Laos since the time of the Vietnam War. Laos borders Vietnam and Cambodia, and since the Ho Chi Minh Trail traversed a good portion of the country, it was heavily bombed by U.S. forces to stop supplies, weapons, and troops from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong and Communist forces in the south. In fact, more bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (2.5 million tons of munitions) than all the bombs dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.
When I first heard this, I found it hard to believe, so I checked it out. It’s true.
Approximately 30% of those munitions failed to explode, and much of that is still live and a danger to civilians today. Of particular concern are cluster bombs. This is a bomb that opens up and scatters approximately 360 bomblets (each about the size of a peach) all over an area. Many of them have been embedded in the ground, or in brushes or weeds, really just about anywhere. Farmers hit them while plowing, and most disturbingly, children find them, play with them, and they often explode, causing death or loss of limb (or limbs), disfigurement, etc. This occurs over 100 times a year, and unfortunately mostly to children.
Among the many things I did in Laos, the most moving by far was visiting a facility called Cope (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) where they produce artificial hands, arms, feet, and legs for those who have been injured by a cluster bomb, or those who have lost limbs due to leprosy, other diseases or accidents.
A few more things about Laos: it’s about the size of Utah, has 6.6 million people, is one of the poorest nations in Asia, is greatly dependent on the mighty Mekong River, is part of the notorious opium producing Golden Triangle region, is pushed around by powerful arch-rival neighbors, China and Vietnam, and is still governed by a rigid one-party Communist system.
Next, Burma (Myanmar). Burma attained its independence from British Colonial rule in 1948. It was governed by a democratic civilian government from 1948 until a military junta seized power in 1962.
For the next 50 years, this repressive, brutal military junta has ruled with an iron fist, crushing all opposition. The United States and most other nations (except China, of course) have imposed sanctions on this rogue state hoping that it would one day change. That day may be upon us.
The junta allowed relatively free elections to take place about a month ago, and the party of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (who had been under house arrest the last two decades for the inexcusable crime of winning an election about 20 years ago) won big, and these reformers were allowed to be sworn into office.
A newly formed National Human Rights Commission has been formed (I met with its leader, U Kyaw Tint Swe, and several other members of the commission and discussed the prospect for true human rights being respected in Burma.)
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and I met with seven of them, including Myo Win, May Pale Thwe, Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Zin Mar Aung, Maung Thura Zarganar, and Mya Aye Thuya. Some of these heroic human rights leaders and democracy advocates have been imprisoned for more than 15 years under very harsh conditions. Their crime was wanting a better life for their people, and being willing to speak out in the face of a brutal, repressive government. One of their principal goals is to make sure that those political prisoners still behind bars are not forgotten.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma late last year, and as a result of the improvements in the political climate in Burma, the Obama Administration has just eased financial sanctions on Burma. For example, American corporations would be permitted to invest in Burma for the first time in decades.
However, several days before I left for Burma, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement saying “The Obama Administration is acting prematurely in easing sanctions on Burma. While small steps have been taken in the direction of democracy, serious questions remain about Burma’s journey toward democracy, as hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed and repression still exists. We know little about the actual impact of political changes made by the ruling junta in the past year, and until we see more evidence of change, I am adamantly opposed to rolling back the leverage that we possess in that country.”
I intend to closely monitor events as they unfold in this important part of the world.
And finally, Yemen. Shortly after I left the United States on my way to the three countries mentioned above, a horrific al Qaeda terrorist attack occurred in the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, which was my intended destination in Yemen. An al Qaeda suicide bomber detonated a huge explosive device in Sana’a on the parade grounds where Yemeni soldiers were practicing for the celebration of the 1990 unification of North Yemen and South Yemen. Nearly 100 soldiers were killed and over 200 wounded.
I met with the President of Yemen, Mansour Hadi, and of course expressed our nation’s sincerest condolences for their tragic loss.
Some background on Yemen. Yemen experienced one of the most tumultuous and violent uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring. There was nearly a year of protests and pitched battles which claimed over 2,000 lives – over and above the approximately 100 soldiers lost on the parade grounds about a week ago.
Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh desperately tried to hold onto power (and in many ways is still trying to do so today, even though he stepped aside when Mansour Hadi was elected), and Yemen has paid a heavy price for this political instability.
While various factions vied for power in the capital, al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ansar al Sharia, and other terrorist groups were busy taking over significant portions of the country, particularly in the south.
Of particular interest to the United States is the fact that these terrorist organizations have been directly involved in attempts to smuggle onto commercial aircraft hard-to-detect explosive devices bound for the United States. In addition to myself, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan traveled to Yemen within the last month.
I might add that our drone program has been particularly active (and quite effective) in battling al Qaeda-connected terrorists in Yemen. One example would be the elimination (by drone) of notorious terrorist supporter Anwar al Awlaki last September. Until his death, he had been an al Qaeda recruiter and trainer who was known as the “bin Laden of the Internet.” Al Awlaki was also associated with 3 of the 9/11 hijackers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the “underwear bomber.”
It’s critical that the United States work with Yemen to defeat al Qaeda-connected terrorist organizations in order to protect our own nation’s security. It is estimated that there are more al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen (they literally control whole sections of the country) than in any other nation on Earth. This is truly the front line in the War on Terror.
Please keep those Yemeni soldiers who lost their lives on that parade ground last week, or were wounded, and their families, in your prayers.