US senator praise Myanmar reforms, calls for more

January 16, 2012 - 6:56 AM
Myanmar US

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, left, listens to Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi talk to journalists during a press conference after their meeting at her home in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A U.S. senator who is a leading supporter of Myanmar's democracy movement said Monday he is impressed with the new government's reforms but more needs to be done.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell met more than an hour with Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and will meet President Thein Sein on Tuesday.

McConnell is the latest prominent Westerner to visit Myanmar and encourage Thein Sein's initiative. The top American and British diplomats visited earlier, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is in the country now. More of McConnell's Senate colleagues plan visits later.

As part of new U.S. engagement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar after last week's release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Thein Sein's elected, nominally civilian government has made limited democratic reforms since it took office last March and it wants Western political and economic sanctions lifted.

Every year since 2003, McConnell has introduced legislation sanctioning Myanmar and would be a prominent voice should the U.S. contemplate easing those restrictions. The Senate must also approve the appointment of an ambassador.

McConnell told reporters he was delighted to meet Suu Kyi in person, and that the recent dramatic changes were exciting.

"There is, however, as everyone knows, much left to be done," he said. "I think the improved relations with the various ethnic minorities are the most important thing we want to focus on at this point."

He called the recently announced cease-fire with the Karen an important step. "we'd like to see that kind of progress made with other ethnic groups," McConnell said.

He said the U.S. also looked forward to free and fair by-elections on April 1.

He said such steps would clearly merit U.S. consideration of lifting sanctions. The myriad U.S. sanctions heavily restrict trade, investment and foreign aid to Myanmar. The restrictions also block financial transfers, especially by military-backed leaders and their cronies, and deny visas to the same VIPs.

Suu Kyi thanked McConnell for his long-running interest in Myanmar's affairs.

"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 seasoned democratic politician, he'll be able to judge how far we are progressing along the road to democratization," she said.

McConnell told reporters that he looked forward to his talk with Thein Sein to get to know him and "get a chance to discuss the way forward with him."

Juppe, making the first-ever visit by a French foreign minister to Myanmar and the first French ministerial visit since 1988 — also was to meet both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein.

Juppe on Sunday presented Suu Kyi with the Legion d'Honneur medal, one of his country's highest honors.

He said that France and the European Union would respond "positively and in concrete terms to the significant gestures" that Thein Sein's reforms represented, and announced an increase in bilateral aid.

"We will lift sanctions step by step at the pace of the progress of democratization and liberalization of the regime here in Burma," he said, using the term for Myanmar preferred by the country's pro-democracy movement.