McConnell defends Myanmar’s Suu Kyi but 'deeply troubled' by attacks on Muslim minority group

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Sept. 12. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday warned against “unfounded criticism” aimed at Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi for not doing enough to halt systematic violence targeting her country’s Rohinyga Muslim minority. McConnell also said he had discussed the escalating crisis with Suu Kyi in a telephone call on Wednesday.

“Publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi — the best hope for democratic reform in Burma — is not constructive,” McConnell, arguably Congress’s leading voice on Myanmar, said in a speech on the Senate floor.

“Burma’s path to representative government is not certain, and it is not over, and attacking the single political leader who has worked to further democracy within Burma is likely to hinder that objective in the long run,” the senator said.

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Suu Kyi, long her country’s top advocate for democracy and human rights, has drawn fire for not speaking out forcefully during the unfolding crisis, which has seen some 400,000 Rohingya feel their homes and race into neighboring Bangladesh. The long-simmering humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, also known as Burma, escalated sharply with a military crackdown on Aug. 25 in the northern Rakhine State in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.

“Right now, the most important thing is for the violence in Rakhine State to stop and to try to ensure the rapid flow of humanitarian aid through both Burma and Bangladesh to the affected areas to help the Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons,” McConnell said.

Recently arrived Rohingya refugees wait to receive aid donations in Bangladesh. (Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

McConnell underlined that Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s first civilian leader after a half-century of military rule, has no control over the armed forces.

“Unfounded criticism of Suu Kyi exaggerates her ability to command the military — which the Burmese Constitution does not actually allow her to do — and the political evolution of representative government is not over,” the Kentucky senator said. “She must and is working to promote peace and reconciliation within her national context, but Burma’s path to a more democratic government is not yet complete, and will not miraculously occur overnight.”

During their telephone call, Suu Kyi “agreed with the need for immediate and improved access of humanitarian assistance to the region, particularly by the International Red Cross, and she conveyed that she is working toward that end,” McConnell said. “She reiterated her view of the universality of human dignity and of the pressing need to pursue peace and reconciliation among the communities in Rakhine State.”

Suu Kyi’s spokesman has said she will skip the annual U.N. General Assembly. The gathering, held in New York City next week, is expected to address the crisis. Instead, she will make a speech on peace and reconciliation in Myanmar, Agence France-Presse reported.

McConnell cautiously supported outreach to Myanmar under President Barack Obama, who eased economic sanctions on that country despite its regular repression of the Rohingya.

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