US Senator Convinced Myanmar Leader Is Reformer

Published January 17, 2012 6:27PM (EST)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Republican offered rare praise Tuesday for the former general leading Myanmar, but stopped short of saying he'd support easing sanctions.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told The Associated Press after visiting Myanmar he would take his cue on lifting sanctions from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He said a key test would be free and fair conduct of April 1 elections.

Relations between the U.S. and Myanmar have improved dramatically in recent months and the Obama administration on Friday announced it planned to restore full diplomatic relations. McConnell, long one of the fiercest critics of Myanmar in Congress, is the latest of a series of high-level visitors, following Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who went in December. Sen. John McCain and other lawmakers will visit this week.

McConnell met with Suu Kyi in the main city of Yangon for more than an hour on Monday. He traveled to the remote capital Naypyidaw and met Tuesday with President Thein Sein and his foreign and defense ministers.

"I'm convinced he (Thein Sein) is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi," McConnell said by phone from neighboring Thailand. He added that individuals should not be judged on their past, but measured by their current and future actions and willingness to change.

His comments are a stark reflection of the changes in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which is shifting from five decades of direct military rule, when it faced international isolation over its bloody repression of democracy and brutal wars against ethnic insurgencies.

Thein Sein served in the former ruling junta but like a number of top generals, retired from the military to take part in the civilian government that was installed after flawed elections in 2010. The last polls in 1990 were swept by Suu Kyi's party but it was barred from taking power.

McConnell urged Myanmar to allow international observers for the April elections to certify they are free and fair. He also sought more moves to end ethnic violence, and for Myanmar to discontinue its relationship with North Korea, which is suspected to have sold it missiles in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Some in the U.S. Congress maintain that there is ongoing nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

"They (Myanmar's government) understand that a big part of normalizing the relationship with the United States is to discontinue its relationship with North Korea," he said.

McConnell supported the Obama administration's decision to appoint an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in two decades — following the release Friday of more than 600 detainees, including many of the country's most prominent political inmates.

"I think that's a smart thing to do," McConnell said. "We'll be looking for more progress in the coming months and will decide how to reciprocate with actions of our own."

Myanmar has long been a rare issue on which Republicans and Democrats in have a meeting of minds — a tradition that has endured Washington's increasingly polarized politics and the Obama administration's move to engage a government the U.S. long treated as a pariah.

However, the Republican leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has remained critical of the Obama administration's policy.

In a statement Friday after the decision to appoint an ambassador was announced, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen urged the administration to stop talks with Myanmar's government, saying, "Any concession to the dictatorship would be grossly premature."

By Salon Staff

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