CHIANGRAI TIMES – After an emotional first meeting with Burma democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that more steps towards reform probably will ease U.S. and Western sanctions against that Southeast Asian nation..
“Additional steps the government takes in the direction of reform are likely to met by some kind of modification of the sanctions on our part,” the Kentucky Republican said in a telephone interview from Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. “But reciprocity is the key word. They take steps, we respond.”
A critical juncture comes on April 1, when Burma, also known as Myanmar, holds parliamentary elections in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will participate.”It is extremely important for the reform movement that the election be perceived as free and fair,” McConnell said.
In addition, the government needs to follow up its cease-fire agreement last week with the Karen ethnic minority by reaching a similar accord with the other minorities who have been fighting for years, he said.
The Obama administration responded to the setting of the election date, and last week’s release of hundreds of political prisoners, by announcing that it would begin the process of sending an ambassador to Burma.
McConnell met with some of the released political prisoners and said Suu Kyi’s party is working to verify that all such prisoners are now free.
After meeting with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for an hour and a half, McConnell said Suu Kyi was “very upbeat and optimistic” about the political reforms sweeping her country of 55 million people after half a century of brutal military rule. Suu Kyi spent most of 15 years under house arrest until her release in November 2010.
The Senate GOP leader is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Burma President Thein Sein, a former member of the military who has been leading the reform effort.
Suu Kyi “likes the president and believes that he is a sincere reformer,” McConnell said, adding that she “thinks that dramatic progress has not only been made but is likely to continue in the future.”
“I think everyone feels it and senses it, all around the country,” the senator said. “This is clearly a dramatic move in a different direction. We just all hope that this is going to continue.”
McConnell has been the leading critic of the Burma junta for nearly two decades and has cosponsored the economic sanctions bills passed by Congress to pressure the government to end political repression and ethnic persecution.
In a joint press conference on the side porch of her house, Suu Kyi thanked McConnell for his long efforts to keep Burma in the international eye.
“That is why I trust his judgment, and I know that he will be watching the situation closely to find out what needs to be done, and as (a) seasoned democratic politician, he’ll be able to judge how far we are progressing along the road to democratization,” Suu Kyi said.
McConnell said he invited Suu Kyi to the United States and to Kentucky when she thinks the time is right for her to travel.
“She could very well end up speaking at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville,” he said.
McConnell said the democracy leader asked as they parted if she could give him a kiss.
“It was really kind of an emotional moment because I’m sure that I thought, and I don’t know if she thought, that we were never going to meet,” he said. “It’s an incredible day.”
Contributing: The Associated Press