(The Washington Post): US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spent over a quarter century promoting human rights and democracy in Myanmar, is now the principal senator holding up fresh legislation pressuring the country to improve its treatment of the Rohingya.
McConnell, a Republican representing the state of Kentucky, was the architect of harsh economic sanctions against the former military junta, which were dropped in 2016. His current stance has surprised human rights advocates in Washington who once viewed the senator as their most powerful ally in regard to Myanmar.
They characterise him now as an obstructionist who remains loyal to Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi even as others sour on her over her response to the Rohingya crisis.
“It is very surprising given Senator McConnell’s history, and the seriousness of this crisis,” said a congressional staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “This is not on a small scale – this is ethnic cleansing.”
An act calling for targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military generals sponsored by Senator John McCain and Senator Benjamin Cardin passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, and legislation with similar penalty language passed overwhelmingly in the US House of Representatives in May. Both bills are being obstructed by the majority leader.
The Senate bill “has been blocked, according to all accounts, by the majority leader’s preference not to have that conversation about whether we should be enacting sanctions,” said Senator Jeff Merkley. “I think it is a black mark on the US Senate that we have not had that debate.”
Though he says he is “deeply troubled” by the crisis in Myanmar, McConnell says he believes that any sanctions language coming from the Hill could undermine Suu Kyi’s government, a view supported by her advisers, who see the majority leader as among her only friends in Washington. His position is borne out of years-long loyalty and dedication to Suu Kyi as well as a sense that she is doing her best to manage a tense relationship with the military.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has worked her whole life to further democracy within Burma, and she remains the best hope for democratic reform in her country,” McConnell said, using another name for Myanmar, in response to questions from The Washington Post. “The best hope for Burma to become a truly representative government . . . is maintaining US support for Aung San Suu Kyi.”
The tensions underscore how branches of the US government are struggling to find a coherent response to the alleged atrocities in the country’s Rakhine state, which have sent 700,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh.
The European Union and Canada last week imposed sanctions on seven Myanmar generals who led the campaign against the Rohingya. The United States has punished just one so far, in December, though more – as many as eight – are likely to be added, according to Senate staff.
McConnell has been a supporter of Suu Kyi since the 1990s.
In 2003 he successfully pushed through sanctions that banned military generals from obtaining visas, effectively limiting most American trade with Myanmar, and froze the generals’ assets in the US. Because Myanmar was such a fringe issue at the time, McConnell wrote the legislation so it had to be renewed yearly, which would keep it on the radar of Washington and the media, according to a former Senate aide.
“Every year, spring would come, and it would be Burma season,” the aide said.
While under house arrest, Suu Kyi would speak to McConnell, fostering a relationship between the pair. Through her doctor, she smuggled a letter to the United States in 2002 thanking McConnell for his support – a letter that McConnell kept and framed.
In 2012, as Myanmar opened to the world, McConnell visited the country and the friend he had admired from afar.
“It was really kind of emotional, frankly. And at the end of the meeting she said, ‘Can I kiss you?’ And I said absolutely, I don’t think my wife would mind,” he said in an interview with NPR after the trip. “It was a real emotional moment.”
Later that year, Suu Kyi embarked on a whirlwind trip to the United States, visiting Myanmar communities and policymakers in Washington. Her one day of downtime was spent in Kentucky, where she visited a horse farm. She spoke at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisvilleand thanked the senator for his “consistent support”.
As Myanmar held its first democratic elections in November 2015, the US ambassador to Myanmar at the time, Derek Mitchell, would send updates every three hours to two institutions in Washington – the White House and McConnell. The elections saw Suu Kyi come to power as the leader of the civilian government, but the military has maintained significant clout and is independent under Myanmar’s constitution, giving Suu Kyi little control over the force.
Suu Kyi has been widely criticised across the world for a lack of leadership on the Rohingya issue.
In a speech after the military campaign last August, she dismissed the allegations, saying the situation was less severe than the glboal community was making it out to be. Her government has restricted access to Rakhine state, including by NGOs and the media.
“I am sadly disappointed in her lack of leadership when it comes to the plight of the Rohingya people,” Senator Dick Durbin said on the Senate floor last October. “She claims she is committed to restoring peace and the rule of law. Yet, she has spoken of so-called allegations and counter-allegations instead of addressing widespread, well-documented abuses by her own country’s security forces.”
McConnell was the only lawmaker to back Suu Kyi. After a phone call with her in September – the last time he’s spoken to her – he emphasised to his colleagues that she is “the same person as she was before” and called their criticisms “unfounded”.