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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, today I rise to discuss events in the country of Burma. Every year since 2003, I have come to the floor of the U.S. Senate to introduce the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, and every year introduction of this bill has been accompanied by a somber message to the Senate: that reform in Burma is nowhere in sight. That is what I have said every year going back to 2003.

This year, I am pleased to say that though the bill's language is the same, the message is far different, as is the legal effect of the legislation. In a remarkable turnabout of events over the past 18 months, Burma has made dramatic changes for the better. In response to these developments, the administration recently decided it will ease many of the economic sanctions against Burma through exercise of its waiver authority. As a result, this year's Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act would effectively renew only a handful of the sanctions against the regime and would preserve the administration's flexibility to use its waiver authority.

In 2008, the Burmese junta put in place a new Constitution--a very flawed document. It does not ensure civilian control of the military. In fact, the charter may only be amended if over 75 percent of the Parliament vote in favor of such changes and one-fourth of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military.

In November 2010, Burma held an election under this new charter, which was universally derided as being neither free nor fair. The party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi--the National League for Democracy--refused to participate due to the unfairness of the electoral process.

Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly were manifest, and there was a prohibition against political prisoners, such as Suu Kyi, running for office. Not surprisingly, the junta-supported party won over three-quarters of the nonappointed parliamentary seats. The new government took office on April 1, 2011.

Shortly after this seemingly unpromising election, some signs of change began to appear. Suu Kyi was freed after years under house arrest. By July 2011 she was permitted to leave Rangoon for the first time since her release. In August she visited the new capital, Naypyitaw, and met with the new President, Thein Sein.

In September 2011 the government lifted its prohibition against major news Web sites and dropped anti-Western slogans from state publications. That same month the regime announced it would suspend action on a controversial dam to be constructed by China in Kachin State. The project was strongly opposed by democracy advocates and ethnic leaders.

As part of its reforms, the legislature enacted a bill that permitted Suu Kyi to participate in the April 1, 2012, by-election and made it possible for her party to reregister, after having technically lost its party status for boycotting the November 2010 balloting.

In January of 2012 a score of political prisoners were released and a preliminary cease-fire agreement was reached with the Karen, appearing to end one of the longest running ethnic disputes in the world.

In April 2012 Burma held a by-election to replace lawmakers who had assumed Cabinet roles. For the first time since 1990, the NLD participated in the election. Of the 45 seats that were open, the NLD contested 44 and won 43.

Suu Kyi herself won a seat in what was clearly a dramatic victory for the opposition. This spring, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Suu Kyi was granted a passport and traveled outside Burma. Thus, in a mere 18 months, Suu Kyi has gone from political prisoner to Member of Parliament. That in and of itself is a remarkable change, and it reflects more broadly the wide-ranging reforms that have occurred in the country.

In response to the Burmese Government's efforts, on May 17 the State Department announced that it would undertake a number of administrative steps to ease sanctions against Burma. These include removing both the investment ban and the financial services ban against Burma, except in transactions involving bad actors. In addition to suspending certain economic sanctions, the administration announced that it would exchange full Ambassadors with Naypyitaw.

Mr. President, I support each of these steps taken by the State Department.

What caused the Burmese Government to initiate these democratic reforms? It is hard to know for certain, but sanctions seem to have played an important part in bringing the government around. No country likes being viewed as a pariah, and the Burmese regime seems no different.

When I visited Burma back in January, the one thing I heard from all the government officials with whom I met--the President, the Foreign Minister, the Speaker of the Lower House--they all said: We want the sanctions removed.

Suu Kyi herself publicly stated a few months ago that ``to those who ask whether or not sanctions have been effective, I would say yes, very, very confidently, because this government is always asking for sanctions to be removed. ..... So, sanctions have been effective. If sanctions had not been effective this would not be such an important issue for them.'' All of that is from Suu Kyi herself.

So some Senators may reasonably ask why are we moving this sanctions bill again if Burma has made such dramatically positive steps. Well, there are several reasons. Let me lay them out.

First, the Burmese Government still has not met all the necessary conditions to justify a complete--a complete--repeal of all existing sanctions. Despite the unmistakable progress made by the Burmese Government, now is not the time to end our ability either to encourage further government reform or to revisit sanctions if that became necessary. As Suu Kyi herself has cautioned, the situation in Burma is ``not irreversible.'' Serious challenges need to be addressed.

Violence in Kachin State remains a serious problem. Numerous political prisoners remain behind bars. The constitution is still completely undemocratic. And the regime's relationship with North Korea, especially when it comes to arms sales with Pyongyang, remains an issue of grave concern.

As I noted, renewing the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act would leave intact the import ban against Burmese goods, thus maintaining leverage the executive branch can utilize to help prompt further reform. Reauthorizing this measure would permit the executive branch, in consultation with Congress, to calibrate sanctions as necessary, thus preserving its flexibility.

Second, the renewal of this sanctions bill will not affect--will not affect--the administration's current efforts to ease sanctions as announced on May 17. Let me repeat that renewing the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act will leave undisturbed the process for suspending sanctions announced 3 weeks ago. In part for this reason, the State Department supports renewal of this measure. In fact, a vote for reauthorization of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act should be seen as a vote in support of the administration's easing of sanctions and a vote to support reform efforts in Burma.

As a practical matter, renewal of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act would entail, No. 1, extending for another year the ban against Burmese imports; No. 2, continuing authority for financial services sanctions but leaving in place the authority the administration needs to proceed with the easing--the easing--of such restrictions; and No. 3, leaving untouched the administration's ability to ease the investment ban, which is part of a separate bill.

Finally, renewal of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act has continued bipartisan support in Congress and the support of Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition in Burma.

There are, unfortunately, too few issues where the administration has sought to work with Congress in a bipartisan manner--mighty few, in fact--but on the issue of sanctions reauthorization, the State Department and I are in full agreement. I also know that my longstanding partner on Burma on the other side of the aisle, Senator Feinstein, shares my sentiments about reauthorizing this measure. As for Burma's democratic opposition, I spoke with Suu Kyi just a few days ago. She told me she believes the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act should be renewed.

If Burma stays on the path it seems to be on to reform, it will require significant help in reforming its economy and in developing business practices that encourage enduring foreign direct investment and corporate responsibility. A great deal of work must be done as Burma looks ahead to hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. For the first time in a half a century, Burma seems--seems--to be on the right path to reform, and reauthorization of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act places the United States squarely on the side of reform and of reformers.

For the reasons I have laid out, I believe a renewal of this measure is the right step to take. Burma has made great strides over the past 18 months, and Congress should recognize those strides. At the same time, Congress should not be fully satisfied with recent reforms, as much more work remains to be done.

In closing, I am introducing the renewal of the Freedom and Democracy Act, originally passed in 2003, for myself; Senator Feinstein, with whom I have worked on this over the years and referred to in my remarks; Senator John McCain, who has been very active in this area and met with Suu Kyi this past year; Senator Durbin; and Senator Collins, who had the opportunity to meet with Suu Kyi just the week before last--all of whom are active and interested in this issue.

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