Sen. Mitch McConnell spoke Saturday to an audience of over 400 including several refugees from Burma at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in St. Mathews about his recent visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, and said it’s premature to lift U.S sanctions against the country.
“For a long time, and I’m sure most of you, wondered if anything would change in Burma,” said McConnell, pausing for interpretation. “But clearly change is in the air,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last week that diplomatic relations with Myanmar would likely be reinstated following the recent release of 651 political prisoners and a signed cease fire between the Myanmar government and the country’s largest rebel group, which were two requirements toward lifting U.S. sanctions from the country.
Myanmar underwent significant changes last year when nearly five decades of military rule began to dissolve. It has since been working to reform its government and new elections will be held in spring.
“The election on April 1st must be viewed as free and fair and I’ve recommended that they have international observers. That’s very common in new democracies around the world,” McConnell said.
McConnell’s trip to Myanmar last weekend was the first by a lead Congressman in more than 20 years. McConnell met with democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other government leaders. His visit included a meeting with two political prisoners recently released.
“Suu Kyi has a list that’s been given to the government. Our chargé who is in charge of the embassy there is discussing the list with the government in order to verify that every political prisoner has either been released or will be released and that process is under way as we speak,” he said.
McConnell said while the country is moving in the right direction, Myanmar must closely monitor it’s progress going forward.
“For example, in the Kachin state up in the north you can argue that things have actually gone backward because the government broke a long standing cease fire just last year,” he said.
McConnell has been an advocate for sanctions against Myanmar since first introducing sanction legislation in 2003.
“Even though the steps that are occurring are certainly positive I want to assure you I wouldn’t support and I don’t think the administration in the United States would support lifting sanctions that has been imposed unless there is further progress,” he said.
Other U.S. lawmakers, like Sen. John McCain, plan on visiting in the near future. McConnell said communication with Suu Kyi will be key.
“I think the United States’ policy is going to be guided in large measure by what Suu Kyi says about it because she’s been our best advisor on this issue for a long time,” he said.
McConnell took questions from audience members, some who showed concern about whether the government can fairly reform the country when many of the same leaders have remained in charge.
“But it’s still the same people and now the change their name to the Burmese Government…but many are staying the same in the parliament,” said Kawawu, a refugee from Burma who has been living in Louisville for a year.
McConnell said that the country was moving in the right direction but it still has a long way to go.
“I think if the international pressure is enough there will be change,” said Kawawu.