Mitch McConnell’s Myanmar Balancing Act

Senate majority leader defends Suu Kyi but calls for end to violence against Rohingya

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at the Capitol last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday the violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar must end, while seeking to blunt criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, his longtime ally and friend.

“In my view publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, the best hope for democratic reform in Burma, is simply not constructive,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor.

McConnell said he spoke with Suu Kyi on Wednesday about the situation in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The military there is essentially conducting ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which has angered Muslims across the globe and prompted criticism of Suu Kyi, the longtime democratic activist who now serves as a bridge between the executive and legislative branches in the country. 

“According to the Burmese constitution, the army is essentially autonomous, and it has control on the ground of the Rohyinga situation,” McConnell said. “Unfounded criticism of Suu Kyi exaggerates her ability to command the military, which the Burmese constitution does not actually allow her to do.”

“The political evolution of representative government in that country is certainly not over. She must and is working to promote peace annd reconciliation within her national context,” McConnell added.

A group of senators led by Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois introduced a resolution last week that condemned the violence against the Rohingya and suggested Suu Kyi’s words have not lined up with her actions.

“Unfounded criticism of Suu Kyi exaggerates her ability to command the military.” —Sen. Mitch McConnel, R-Ky.

The resolution “encourages Aung San Suu Kyi to live up to her inspiring words upon receiving the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize with respect to ethnic reconciliation in Burma, and in particular to address the historic and brutal repression of the Rohingya in Rakhine State.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who has traditionally been McConnell’s partner on Myanmar policy, co-sponsored the McCain-Durbin measure.

McCain separately announced this week that he intended to remove language from the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill now pending before the Senate regarding military cooperation with Myanmar.

“In just the last month, more than 370,000 Rohingya have fled their villages to escape persecution at the hands of the Burmese military — a campaign of violence and destruction that the United Nations has deemed a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ The international community has called upon Aung San Suu Kyi — who has long been a source of inspiration for democracy — to stop the violence and hold human rights abusers accountable, but there has been no action to-date,” McCain said in a statement. “While I had hoped the NDAA could contribute to positive reform in Burma, I can no longer support expanding military-to-military cooperation given the worsening humanitarian crisis and human rights crackdown against the Rohingya people.”

Members of the Rohingya population have been literally running for their lives, fleeing into Bangladesh.

As the sponsor of the substitute amendment that represents the Senate committee’s version of the defense authorization, McCain has had the right to modify his amendment. He has used that authority to incorporate consensus amendments that other senators would have proposed on the floor if not for a procedural stalemate.

McConnell moved to limit debate on the defense bill Wednesday, likely setting up final action next week. As for the substance of the call with Suu Kyi, the majority leader offered a bit of a readout.

“I’d like to report to the Senate that during our call, Daw Suu agreed with the need for immediate and improved humanitarian assistance to the region, particularly by the international Red Cross. And she conveyed that she’s working to that end. She reiterated her view of the universality of human dignity and of the pressing need to pursue peace and reconciliation among the communities in Rakhine State,” McConnell said. “Daw Suu emphasized to me that violations of human rights will need to be addressed. Moreover, she stressed that the situation in Rakhine State is a protracted, longstanding problem that she’s trying very hard to improve conditions.”

ung San Suu Kyi, speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the Capitol rotunda honoring her for "leadership and commitment to human rights and for promoting freedom, peace and democracy in Myanmar,"
Aung San Suu Kyi, speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda honoring her for her leadership and commitment to human rights. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Having spent about 15 years under house arrest as a pro-democracy leader in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has long traditionally received a warm reception on Capitol Hill She received a Congressional Gold Medal back in 2012, which goes along with her Nobel Peace Prize.

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