Senators Watching as Kerry Visits Myanmar

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 8, 2014 at 1:01pm

When Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Myanmar Saturday to meet with government officials there along with ASEAN Regional Forum and other meetings, the Senate will be watching.  

The week before the chamber left for August recess, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell provided one of his periodic updates on the current political climate in the country, formerly known as Burma. The Kentucky Republican has long been one of the Senate’s leading voices, along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, against a repressive military junta that long ruled the country with an iron fist.  

Recent democratic changes have led to easing of U.S. economic sanctions against the country, but McConnell had a warning for the country’s rulers that more must be done. In a July 24 floor speech, he cited specifically a constitutional provision that has the effect of barring Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.  

Suu Kyi, also known as Daw Suu, finally received a congressional gold medal awarded in 2008 on a historic visit to Capitol Hill in 2012, having been under house arrest thanks to the military junta.  

“Section 59 stipulates that the Burmese president may not be a foreign national and may not have any immediate family members who are foreign nationals. This limitation on the home nation of a candidate’s immediate family has no bearing on an individual’s fitness for office. This restriction prevents many, including Daw Suu herself, from even being considered for Burma’s highest office,” McConnell said. “Daw Suu, for example, would not be permitted to run because her deceased husband was, and her two sons are, British nationals. To think that the nationalities of family members have relevance for fitness to hold office or allegiance to Burma is dubious at best.”  

McConnell certainly isn’t alone in taking interest in the development of Myanmar’s political system. Fellow Republican Sens. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida fired off a joint letter to Kerry Thursday, asking him to address political issues while in the country.  

In addition to the specific problems with the constitution, Kirk and Rubio point to ongoing human rights abuses and what they term “the national phenomenon of anti-Muslim violence that is rooted in a narrative of Buddhist grievance.”  

“The government’s continued failure to stop violence at the community level and address the regional and national environments fueled by intolerance and xenophobia is unacceptable. Efforts to pass a law banning interfaith marriage enjoys support within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, and there are persistent rumors of ties between current and former military leaders and the most virulent anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate groups,” said Kirk and Rubio.  

“To that end, we request that you spend at least as much time during your visit talking to civil society groups, representatives of political ethnic nationalities, and non-state armed groups as you do with government officials,” they wrote. “We also urge you to make absolutely clear to your official interlocutors that the status quo in Burma is unacceptable and that meaningful and irreversible progress on these issues is necessary to further advance our bilateral interest in normalizing relations.”  

Parliamentary elections are looming in 2015, and McConnell views them as a key event in the country’s future.  

“While Congress did not renew the … import ban last year and there is little appetite to renew the measure this year, several U.S. sanctions toward Burma remain on the books. They include restrictions on the importation of jade and rubies into the United States and sanctions on individuals who continue to hinder reform efforts,” McConnell said. “It is hard to see how those provisions get lifted without there being progress on the constitutional eligibility issue and the closely related issue of the legitimacy of the 2015 elections.”