Burmaby Senator Mitch McConnell
Posted on 2015-06-04
McCONNELL. Mr. President, on one final matter, several weeks ago,
I had the pleasure of meeting with Shwe Mann, speaker of the Burmese
Parliament, on his visit to Washington. It was the third time we met.
We had a cordial but frank discussion about the challenges and
opportunities facing his country in 2015. There are obviously many
issues that fall into both categories.
When it comes to challenges, there is the need for the government to do all it can to protect and assume responsibility for members of a long-suffering religious minority group, the Rohingya, thousands of whom have been forced to take to the high seas on dangerous makeshift vessels to escape persecution. There is the longstanding need for the government to continue its work with other ethnic minorities toward a permanent peace agreement that calls for political settlements in order to end a conflict as old as the modern Burmese State itself. Then there is the need for a constitutional reform to enhance civilian control of the military, along with more progress on efforts to protect liberties, such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of assembly.
Those are just a few of the challenges facing Burma in 2015. But it is also true that Burma has come a long way from where it was just a few years ago. Reform has been offered, change has occurred, and considering the conditions within Burma when reform began, this is no small achievement. That is why there are opportunities as well.
The parliamentary election that will be held later this year represents a clear opportunity to demonstrate how far Burma has progressed. There are some encouraging signs that the election will be more credible, more inclusive, and more transparent than what we have seen in the past in that country. Unlike recent Burmese elections, international election monitors have been permitted to observe. By and large, the work of the Union Election Commission has been encouraging thus far, especially as it relates to serious efforts to modernize the voter roles and to make it easier to run for office. And our Embassy, under the capable leadership of Ambassador Derek Mitchell, has been engaged in the process as well.
These are all positive signs, but it is going to take a sustained commitment by President Thein Sein's government to ensure that as free and fair an election as possible takes place this fall because for all of the positive change we have seen in recent years, it is obvious that Burma still has much further to go. There are signs that its political reform effort has begun to falter, which is worrying for all of us who care about the Burmese people.
It doesn't mean Burmese officials can't turn things around. I believe they can, which is what I indicated to the speaker when I met with him. I believe there is still time before the next critical test of Burma's slow democratic development this autumn.
There may still be time to amend the Constitution, for instance, to ensure that it promotes rather than inhibits Burma's democratic development. It is hard to claim democratic legitimacy with a Constitution that unreasonably limits who can run for President or that effectively locks in a parliamentary veto for the military.
At the very least, the six-party talks we have seen between President Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, opposition leader Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the military, ethnic groups, and others certainly represent progress. They should continue in a sustained fashion.
I also hope to see further progress on the draft national ceasefire reached between the Burmese Government and representatives from 16 ethnic groups in March.
Those of us who follow Burma want the country to succeed. We want it to succeed in carrying out a transparent, inclusive, and credible election on a broad scale. We know this standard goes far beyond simply holding an election without mass casualties or violence. It needs to be more than just holding an election without mass casualties or violence. It means the lead-up to the election must be transparent, inclusive, and credible, too. It means there should not be political favoritism shown by the state or its media organs. It means freedom of expression of the press and a peaceful assembly must be ensured. It means citizens must be allowed to register and to vote without harassment, and it means they must be granted equal opportunities to organize, to campaign, and to participate fully in the electoral process without fear and violence.
These basic standards of fairness are minimum goals Burmese officials must strive toward. If the Burmese Government gets this right, if it ensures a transparent, inclusive, and credible election, with results accepted by competing parties, that would go a long way toward reassuring Burma's friends around the globe that it remains committed to political reform. But if we end up with an election not accepted by the Burmese people as reflecting their will, it will make further normalization of relations--at least as it concerns the legislative branch of our government--much more difficult.
For example, such an outcome would likely hinder further enhancement of U.S.-Burma economic ties and military-to-military relations. Further, an erosion of congressional confidence in Burma's reform efforts would also make it more difficult for the executive branch to include Burma in the Generalized System of Preferences program or to enhance political military relations.
So these are some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities awaiting Burma in 2015. I noted many of them in my discussion with Burma's parliamentary speaker.
I would close by making it clear that we in the United States will be watching intently to see what happens in Burma in the coming months, and we are prepared to continue doing what we can to encourage more positive change in that country.