Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday urged Congress not to extend import sanctions on Myanmar, warning that sticking with the sanctions would be “a slap in the face” to reformers in the Southeast Asian nation.
Mr. McConnell said Congress must end the sanctions as an acknowledgement of the reforms taking place in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“I believe renewing sanctions would be a slap in the face to Burmese reformers and embolden those within Burma who want to slow or reverse reform,” Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor.
Over the past two decades, Mr. McConnell has supported sanctions on Myanmar, including import sanctions that have been renewed annually under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act.
“Today, however, I come to the floor with a different message,” he said. “After having given the matter a great deal of thought and review, I do not believe that Congress should reauthorize the [Act’s] import sanctions.”
Mr. McConnell said the sanctions had succeeded to a significant extent in changing the behavior of Myanmar’s government.
“We should be strengthening the hand of these reformers to show the ‘fence sitters’ that reforms will be met with positive action by the United States,” he said. “The administration has extended an olive branch to the new Burmese government, and I believe it is time for Congress to do the same. Burmese citizens should not be made to feel that Congress will maintain sanctions no matter what they do.”
Human rights groups say Myanmar’s government has not done enough to institutionalize reforms, end a war with ethnic minority rebels in the northern Kachin state, or curb a deadly campaign of violence by majority Buddhists and security forces against stateless Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine state.
Myanmarese President Thein Sein met President Obama at the White House on Monday. He became the first leader of his country to visit Washington since Lyndon B. Johnson hosted military strongman Ne Win in 1966.
The Obama administration began normalizing ties with Myanmar in 2011 as Thein Sein’s government took steps toward reform, including releasing more than 850 political prisoners, easing restrictions on the media, and allowing freedom of speech, assembly, and movement.
Mr. McConnell said more action is needed in Myanmar, including reconciliation with ethnic minority groups; a reduction of sectarian strife between Muslims and majority Buddhists; an end to any arms trade between Myanmar and North Korea; an amendment of the constitution, including provisions that exclude opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president; and an unconditional release of all political prisoners.
Myanmar’s national election in 2015 will be an indicator of the reformist momentum in the country, he said.
In his meeting with Mr. Obama, Thein Sein pledged his government’s commitment to more reforms, ending communal violence and striking peace deals with ethnic minority rebels.
Late last week, New York Reps. Joseph Crowley a Democrat, and Peter King, a Republican, introduced legislation in the House to extend a ban on gems imports from Myanmar that will lapse in July.
“I’m incredibly concerned about the facts on the ground in Burma, including human rights violations against ethnic nationalities, the use of rape as a weapon of war and brutal violence against Muslims including women and children,” said Mr. Crowley.