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Burma

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I wish to briefly discuss a trip I took recently to a country that for much of the past 50 years has ranked among the world's most isolated and oppressed by its own government. Many of us wondered if things would ever change in Burma, but after my recent visit I am pleased to say that change is clearly in the air. It appears that Burma has made some progress toward democracy in the past 6 months--made more than it has in the last decade. 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, I can tell you this is welcome news.

On this trip I had the opportunity and privilege to meet with a woman who for over two decades has embodied the struggle for peace in her oppressed country. After Aung San Suu Kyi's political party won 80 percent of the vote in a free and fair election back in 1995, the Burmese military regime dismissed the results and kept her under house arrest for the last 22 years--most of the time for the last 22 years confined at home. Scores of other political reformers during that period were jailed or tortured, and the regime waged a brutal campaign against ethnic minorities, driving many of them out of their homes and into refugee camps. But by her courage and her patience that justice delayed would not be justice denied, Aung San Suu Kyi has kept the hope of freedom in her country alive. I have long admired her from afar. She once took a great risk to smuggle out of Burma a letter thanking me for my support, a letter I have proudly kept to this day. But never did I think I would get to meet the Nobel laureate in person. It was quite a moment.

Following an election in 2010 that was widely thought to be unfree and unfair, the new civilian government in Burma, to the surprise of many of us, has made undeniably positive steps toward reform. In addition to releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest, scores of other political prisoners have been freed. During my visit last week, I spoke with two who had just been released days before my arrival.

One of the longest standing armed conflicts in the world--the Burmese Government's campaign against the ethnic minority called the Karen--has apparently been brought to a close. Many Karen people who fled Burma now call Kentucky home. I had the chance to meet with many of them and other refugees from Burma, now resettled in Kentucky, at Louisville's Crescent Hill Baptist Church this past Saturday. I enjoyed meeting with those folks and was pleased to relay to them the same message I share with my colleagues today that change is indeed in the air in their country.

Because of all of these positive developments, I applaud Secretary Clinton's recent decision to exchange ambassadors with Burma for the first time in 20 years. Of course, the Government of Burma still has a substantial way to go to achieve real and lasting reform. I would not support and I do not think the administration would support lifting the sanctions that have been imposed unless there is much further progress.

The next steps will be elections to fill 48 seats of the national parliament on April 1. Suu Kyi intends to run as the representative of the district with a significant Karen population. This election will give the new government an opportunity to hold the first free and fair elections in Burma since 1990. It also demonstrates the seriousness of its recent reform efforts. The government must also fully and peacefully reconcile with Burma's ethnic minorities. This is vital. Reports indicate that the military continues to engage in hostilities with the Kachin. That is certainly troubling. And questions about Burma's relationship with North Korea must be answered.

As the new government enacts reforms, we should respond with meaningful gestures of our own in the hopes of encouraging further positive developments from Burma's leaders. Reformers such as new President Thein Sein, whom I also met on my trip, are strengthened when they can show positive results. Steps such as exchanging ambassadors with the United States would enable them to do just that.

My trip to Burma has filled me with hope for its people, hope that they will one day be free to elect their own leaders and hope that every person regardless of the ethnic group can enjoy equal rights and full protection under the rule of law. It also reaffirmed for me that the desire to be free is absolutely universal and that the patient yet persistent leadership of one woman can make a tremendous difference.

These are indeed exciting times for all who care about the future of the people of Burma. I know that includes a great many of my colleagues here in the Senate. Burma has quite a long way to go, but it is certainly moving in the right direction.


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