Burmaby Senator Mitch McConnell
Posted on 2015-10-22
McCONNELL. Mr. President, on November 8, just a few weeks away,
the people of Burma will hold national elections. This promises to be a
momentous event for a country many of us have studied and followed for
a very long time--in my own case for over 20 years. This is going to be
a momentous election for at least two reasons.
First, for Burma's citizens--or for many of them, at least--this election represents a chance to finally choose their own leaders, which is, indeed, a rare occurrence in recent Burmese history. That is significant in itself, but there is another reason these elections are so important, because the manner in which they are conducted will serve as a key indicator of the progress of reform in that country.
There are some encouraging signs that the election will be freer and fairer than what we have seen in the past. Unlike recent Burmese elections, for example, international election observers have been permitted into the country. That is an important departure from the past, and it is encouraging. At the same time, there have been troubling signs during the election cycle. Allow me to share a few of them with you now.
First, the Constitution was not amended prior to the election. As many of my colleagues will recall, the Burmese Constitution unreasonably restricts who can be a candidate for President, a hardly subtle attempt to bar the country's most popular opposition figure from even standing for office. That is certainly worrying enough, but the Burmese Constitution goes even further, ensuring an effective military veto over constitutional change--over, for instance, amendments about running for the Presidency by requiring more than three-fourths parliamentary support in a legislature where the Constitution also reserves--listen to this--more than one-fourth of the seats for the military. So in order to change the Constitution, you have to get some military votes and obviously, so far, that hasn't happened.
Allowing appropriate constitutional changes to pass through the Parliament would have represented a tangible demonstration of the Burmese Government's commitment to both political reform and to a freer and fairer election this November. But when the measures were put to a vote on June 25, the government's allies exercised the very undemocratic power the Constitution grants them to stymie the effort.
So what kinds of messages do these actions send us? They bring the Burmese Government's continued commitment to democracy into question. If you were truly committed to democracy, why would you continue a provision like that, which to most of the world is simply quite laughable or outrageous? They also raise fundamental questions about the balloting this fall, increasing the prospect of an election being perceived as something other than the will of the people, even if its actual conduct proves to be free and fair. It is hard to see how that is in anybody's interest.
The second deeply troubling consideration is the apparent widespread, if not universal, disenfranchisement of the Rohingya population. For all the ill treatment the Rohingya have had to endure in their history, at least they had once been able to vote and run for office in Burma. They voted and fielded a candidate for office in both the 2010 election and the 1990 election, but, alas, no more.
Reports indicate that otherwise eligible Rohingya, more than half a million of them, have been systematically deprived of the right to vote and the right to stand for election. That poses another serious challenge to next month's elections being seen as free and fair, and there is another serious challenge I would note as well.
Finally, while media activity in Burma is far more open than it was before 2010, there have been troubling signs that indicate a recent and worrying backslide. In fact, just a few days ago, news circulated of individuals being arrested for Facebook postings.
These are very disturbing reports. Campaigns can be conducted only when a free exchange of ideas is permitted. Arresting citizens for free expression runs directly counter to that idea. It is at odds with notions of free speech and democracy, and it seems designed to send chilling signals to the Burmese people.
It is clear that Burma faces substantial challenges. From the undemocratic elements in Burma's Constitution, to the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, to troubling incidents regarding the curtailment of citizens' basic rights, these challenges are significant. They need to be addressed.
At the same time, we should not allow these things to completely overshadow what Burma has accomplished. It has actually come a long way in recent years. There are many positive things to be built upon as well. In short, there is still hope for Burma's upcoming election.
Thein Sein's government has an opportunity to make these last few weeks of campaigning as free and as fair as possible. The Burmese Government can still hold an election that, despite the troubling things I mentioned, can be embraced by Burmese citizens and the international community alike.
That will mean ensuring these final weeks of campaigning are as free and as fair as possible. That will mean ensuring freedom of expression is protected.
These are the kinds of minimum goals that Burmese officials must strive toward in the final weeks of the campaign season. If the Burmese Government gets this right, if it ensures as free and fair an election as possible, with results accepted by competing parties, the government, and the military, that would go a long way toward reassuring Burma's friends around the globe that it remains committed to political reform and progress in the bilateral relationship. Indeed, both the government and the military have committed to standing by the election results.
[[Page S7456]] Now, let me be clear. While I have always approached this relationship and the role of sanctions realistically, this election is a test the government must pass. Simply holding an election without mass casualties or violence, while vitally important, isn't good enough. Let me say that again. Just holding an election without mass violence is not enough. It has to do a lot more than just have the absence of violence.
As I stated on the Senate floor earlier this year, 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 this government--much more difficult. It would likely hinder further enhancement of U.S.-Burma economic ties and military-to-military relations. It would likely erode confidence in Burma's reform efforts. It would also likely make it more difficult for the executive branch to include Burma in the Generalized System of Preferences Program or to enhance political military relations.
Those of us who follow Burma want this country to succeed. We want to see the government carry out an election that is as free and as fair as possible. We are prepared to continue doing what we can to encourage more positive change in that country, and we will be realistic about what is possible.
As I just mentioned, that is the kind of approach I have always tried to take--a hopeful but still realistic one when it comes to this relationship, not just on the role of sanctions but also on the possible steps toward closer relations and on the individual programs and policies that would aid Burma's development and capabilities.
So we are hoping the Burmese Government gets this right. This is a big opportunity to send a signal to the rest of the world that Burma has indeed truly changed. We are hoping the Burmese people continue moving along the path of greater freedom and greater reform, but whatever the result, Burmese Government officials should be assured that Burma's partners in the United States and in the international community will be watching intently to see what happens in the coming weeks with a realistic assessment in what Burma can achieve.