WASHINGTON - The top-ranking Republican senator issued a strong call for Myanmar to amend its constitution to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president and for the military to submit to civilian rule.
Sen. Mitch McConnell has for years been the most influential voice in Congress on policy toward the country also known as Burma. A longtime critic of the former ruling junta, he's become supportive of the nation's shift from military rule since 2011.
But in a speech to the Senate on Thursday, McConnell said that reforms in the Southeast Asian nation appear to have stalled, leaving Myanmar's commitment to democracy open to question.
He said failure to amend a constitutional provision that prohibits those such as Suu Kyi with immediate family members who are foreign nationals would "cast a pall" over the legitimacy of national elections in late 2015 in the eyes of the international community and members of the Senate.
Suu Kyi's late husband was British, as are her two sons.
McConnell said such family ties had no bearing on an individual's fitness for office. He voiced concern that restriction wasn't among the changes being considered by a parliamentary committee proposing amendments to the military-era constitution.
"This provision restricts the ability of the people of Burma, through their representatives, to have a choice in who can hold their highest office. This is profoundly undemocratic. And it is profoundly undemocratic at a time when Burma's commitment to democracy is open to question," McConnell said.
While McConnell did not threaten the reintroduction of trade sanctions lifted last year, he said it was "hard to see" how remaining sanctions would be lifted unless the eligibility issue was addressed. The U.S. still bans the importation of jade and rubies from Myanmar and blacklists individuals hindering reforms.
His comments come amid growing congressional criticism of Myanmar, including over ethnic conflict, restrictions on civil liberties, and anti-Muslim discrimination.
But McConnell reiterated his support for U.S. military engagement to help train and reform Myanmar's armed forces — which the Obama administration wants but many other U.S. lawmakers oppose — saying it could encourage the nation's powerful military to come under civilian control.
Facing growing international criticism, Myanmar announced Thursday it was allowing international aid organizations to return to a western region they were expelled from earlier this year after Buddhist mobs disrupted their work helping displaced Rohingya Muslims.
More than 140,000 Rohingya have been living in dirty, crowded camps after their villages were destroyed by mobs. Up to 280 people have also been killed, most of them Rohingya, in sectarian violence that began in 2012.
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