Policy

Durbin Blasts Removal of Myanmar Sanctions From Defense Bill

Signs point to McConnell not allowing language targeting country also known as Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, has been a guest at the Capitol, including in Sept. 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A legislative effort to punish officials responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar appears to have stalled thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin gave a speech ahead of floor consideration of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization conference report in which he decried, “the irresponsible removal of provisions related to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.”

“The House bill contained five provisions restricting security engagement with Burma, imposing sanctions on Burmese officials responsible for human rights abuses and requiring the State Department to make a determination on whether the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people, a minority, constituted ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or genocide,” the Illinois Democrat said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced similar legislation, authored by Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.

“It looked like these provisions were destined to be in the final work product,” Durbin said.

Under normal circumstances, language backed by McCain would not be dropped from a defense policy bill, especially one that now bears his name. But, when it comes to Myanmar, perhaps there should be no surprise.

Durbin attributed the rejection of the House language to a Senate leader, which was more than likely McConnell. The Kentucky Republican has had a long interest in Myanmar, and he has long supported and defended State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, even as she has come under a barrage of criticism in recent years.

“The Senate Majority Leader insisted that there be no Burma sanctions in the NDAA,” a House aide confirmed to Roll Call after the Durbin speech.

McConnell’s office did not offer an immediate reaction.

 Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor included a direct message to Suu Kyi, who was long viewed as a champion of democracy, earning a Congressional Gold Medal back in 2012.

“In Burma, the government authorities to continue to deny that any of this took place,” Durbin said. “I’m particularly disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi. Her silence on these problems is hard to explain.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the defense conference report on Thursday, according to Sen. James M. Inhofe. The Oklahoma Republican has been filling the duties of McCain while the Armed Services chairman has been battling cancer at home in Arizona.

Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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