Outcome of Fall Elections Will Signal State of Political Reform in Burma

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the following remarks on the Senate Floor today regarding Burma:

“A few weeks ago, I came to the floor to discuss the importance of Burma’s election this fall. I noted that its conduct would tell us a lot about the Burmese government’s commitment to the path of political reform. I said that demonstrating that commitment would be critical to reassuring Burma’s friends abroad, and that it could even have consequences for further normalization of relations with the U.S. — at least as it concerns the legislative branch.   “So I urged Burmese officials to take every step to ensure an election that would be as free and fair as possible. And yet, on June 25, the Burmese government took a step backward from the path to more representative government.   “Allow me to explain.   “There’s little doubt that Burma’s Constitution contains numerous flaws that need to be revised if the government is to be truly representative.

“First, it unreasonably restricts who can be a candidate for president — a not-so-subtle attempt to bar the country’s most popular opposition figure from even standing for office. But then it goes even further, ensuring an effective military veto over constitutional change — for instance, amendments about who can run for the presidency — by requiring more than three-fourths parliamentary support in a legislature where the constitution also reserves one-fourth of seats for the military.   “It’s obvious to see why things should change if Burma is to pursue a path to a more representative government.

“Allowing appropriate constitutional fixes to pass through parliament would have said some pretty positive things about the Burmese government’s commitment to political reform. But when the measures were put to a vote on June 25, the government’s allies exercised the very undemocratic power the constitution grants them to stymie the effort.   “This stands in stark contrast to the support for reform among elected Burmese lawmakers, which was likely higher than 80 percent.   “And so, even if the actual conduct of the election proves to be free and fair, it risks being something other than the will of the people.

“When the most popular figure in the country is precluded from being a candidate for the highest office in the land and when approximately 80 percent of the people’s chosen representatives are stymied by lawmakers who are not democratically elected, it raises fundamental questions about the balloting this fall and about the Burmese government’s commitment to democracy. In fact, at this point it is unclear if the opposition NLD party will even participate in this fall’s election.

“We knew that legal, economic, political, and constitutional development and reform would evolve through fits and starts. This is only realistic given that baseline form which Burma was starting when Congress agreed to lift some sanctions.   “Those of us who’ve followed Burma also know that, given its history, the military fears change, ethnic unrest, and the uncertainty that more democratic government might bring. That’s well-acknowledged. But improving relations with the United States meant both sides would have to take some risks. This was a moment for the military to take another important step on its end, and this was a missed opportunity.   “In light of the recent defeat of constitutional reform, I believe that steps, such as including Burma in the Generalized System of Preferences program, should be put on hold until after this fall’s election. Only after the ballots have been cast and counted in Burma can an appropriate evaluation be made about the pace of reform in the country and whether additional normalization of relations is warranted.”  

Related Issues: Burma