Senators open to lifting sanctions on Myanmar

Senators open to lifting sanctions on Myanmar

Over the winter break, several senators from both parties went to Myanmar. They all came back cautiously optimistic about reforms there, and ready to consider lifting some of the sanctions on the country.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) visited Myanmar earlier this month as part of their whirlwind tour around Southeast Asia, which included stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, the POW camp where McCain was held during the Vietnam War. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) also visited Myanmar over the winter break on separate trips.

The Cable caught up with McCain and Ayotte in the hallways of the Capitol building this week to get their take on developments in Myanmar. Both said they were genuinely impressed by what they saw as the progress toward reform made by President Thein Sein and his administration.

"There’s been significant progress, particularly in the release of political prisoners. There are still some more political prisoners but that was a huge step forward," said McCain, comparing his latest visit favorably to his trip to the country last May.

McCain also noted the increasingly positive and constructive relationship between Myanmar’s president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who will take part of the parliamentary elections in April.

"I’m guardedly optimistic that we are seeing a significant change there," McCain said.

In his statement to the press upon returning to Washington, McCain said the U.S. Congress was committed to begin easing and lifting U.S. sanctions as conditions warrant.

"If you had asked me during my last visit here whether I could envision the Congress lifting all sanctions against this country, I would have said that such a scenario seemed faint and distant. Today, however, it appears increasingly possible," he said. "It is our hope that, with further concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform by the government and people of this great country, our nations will be able to open an entirely new and promising chapter in our relationship."

This was Ayotte’s first trip to Myanmar, part of her increasing involvement in foreign policy matters as one of the newest members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I’m increasingly encouraged by the recent progress that they’ve made," Ayotte told The Cable. The delegation met with Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.

"What we talked about was a roadmap looking forward, if they continue to make progress, of both the Congress and the administration making a roadmap of when we would lift sanctions," she said.

The elections in April need to free and fair, preferably with international monitors, and there needs to be more legislation that institutionalizes the changes in Myanmar, particularly laws that ensure the freedom of assembly, Ayotte said. Also, she said, the rest of the political prisoners need to be released.

Ayotte said Congress must consult with the State Department to coordinate whether lifting congressionally mandated sanctions or executive branch-driven sanctions should be considered first. She also said the new capital city of Naypyidaw was huge and empty.

"When you go up to the new capital, it’s surreal, because you’ve got two ten-lane highways both ways and we were the only car on the highway," she said.

She also said that parliamentary committees in Myanmar have a lot nicer digs than the congressional committees in Washington.

"Every committee would have its own huge building just for the committee. So they’ve built capacity in the capital that doesn’t quite match where they are right now, so that was interesting," she said.

"We’re a counterbalance to China," she added. "That’s what we heard from the leaders in these countries."

McConnell also praised the progress in Burma in a floor speech this week

""It appears that Burma has made more progress toward democracy in the past six months than it has in decades," he said. "As one who has taken a strong interest in Burma for over 20 years, and as the lead author in this chamber of an annual sanctions bill aimed at encouraging the Burmese government to reform, this is welcome news."