MUDDLE OVER MYANMAR
President Obama's decision to re-establish full diplomatic relations with the military-backed government of Myanmar after 22 years has divided top congressional Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supports the president's move as an incentive to promote more reforms in the Southeast Asian nation, which was under brutal military rule for nearly 50 years.
The Kentucky Republican, a co-sponsor of tough U.S. sanctions on the military junta, visited Myanmar this week and met with the country's most prominent pro-democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years. She was released in November 2010.
The chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee criticized Mr. Obama's announcement that he will soon nominate an ambassador to Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, complained that the move is premature. She also criticized Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for visiting Myanmar in November.
"I am concerned that the visit of the secretary of state sends the wrong signal to the Myanmar military thugs," she told MSNBC in a December interview.
"Secretary Clinton's visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal."
Mr. Obama's decision to restore full relations with Myanmar follows the government's release of nearly 600 political prisoners and its decision to schedule parliamentary elections, which are set for April 1.
Mrs. Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, is expected to run candidates in the election.
Before leaving for Myanmar, Mr. McConnell said that "it appears entirely appropriate that the United States consider restoration of more formal diplomatic ties."
After meeting with Mrs. Suu Kyi on Monday, Mr. McConnell called on Myanmarese President Thein Sein to ensure that the elections are legitimate.
"It is extremely important for the reform movement that the election be perceived as free and fair," he told the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal in a telephone interview from Myanmar.
Thein Sein surprised foreign observers with his announced reforms because he came to power in elections in 2010 that were widely considered fraudulent. The military remains the power behind the president, who is also a former army general.
Mr. McConnell, who met with Thein Sein on Tuesday, said the United States will match reforms with reciprocal actions, like limiting some sanctions.
"But reciprocity is the key word," he told his hometown newspaper. "They take steps, we respond."
Mr. McConnell's support will be crucial for the appointment of an ambassador because the nomination will require Senate confirmation. Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen's opposition carries symbolic weight, but the House has no role in the appointment of ambassadors.
"I am distressed that the administration is prematurely and publicly discussing any major concessions to the Myanmar regime, such as nominating an ambassador," Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said last week.
"I call on the administration to immediately cease talks with the ruthless tyrants in Myanmar until the junta has been replaced with a duly elected, democratic government that respects human rights and civil liberties."
The United States withdrew its last ambassador, career Foreign Service officer Burton Levin, in September 1990 after the military rulers violently crushed pro-democracy demonstrations.
The U.S. Embassy has been run by a charge d'affaires, a diplomatic rank one step below an ambassador, since then.
Myanmar's diplomatic mission in Washington, which the State Department still calls the Embassy of Myanmar, also is headed by a charge d'affaires.
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