U.S. Calls for International Observers at Burma By-Elections

A released prisoner walks out of the Insein jail in Yangon, Myanmar, on Jan. 13. (Photo: U Aung, Xinhua Press, Corbis)

A U.S. delegation fronted by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joseph Lieberman will request that the Burmese government allow international observers to oversee April by-elections, which, if deemed free and fair, will almost certainly see the United States remove some sanctions on the Burmese government.

"Obviously we will have to look carefully at the process of the elections," said McCain, who conceded that Burma's reforms in recent months—including the release of several hundred political prisoners—are "a dramatic change in policy and behavior in as short a time as a year ago." McCain confirmed that the delegation, which arrived in Burma on Sunday, would ask Burma's government to allow international observation of the April by-elections, in response to a question about the issue from this correspondent.

A positive assessment by the observers could pay off for the Burmese government, which refused to allow international monitoring of the November 2010 elections. Removing some sanctions could come after a free and fair April by-election, said Lieberman, who added that "the president can remove some of the sanctions," but confirmed that others would require a legislative amendment.

"We are watching the changes in Myanmar very carefully" said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, part of the delegation along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Apart from a few references to Burma, the delegation mostly used "Myanmar" throughout the Q&A with several reporters on Saturday afternoon.

"My personal view is that we should not lift any sanctions before April, and possibly not even then if enough progress isn't made." said McCain. "We should all applaud what is happening in Myanmar, but there are many times in history where we learned things aren't what we thought they were," he said, adding that '"I've puzzled over that" when asked why he thinks Burma's decades-old dictatorship has undertaken reforms in recent months.

Asked how far the United States expects Burma's government to take reforms, McCain said, "We do not expect perfection, but at the same time we do not expect one step to mean that we treat them like Sweden," referring to the recent release of many of Burma's high-profile political prisoners.

"We'd like to see a commitment by the government to improving the lives of the people," added McCain. "I don't agree with the assertion that the sanctions have caused that," he said, referring to the dilapidated state of main city Rangoon and the Burmese economy. "It is government mismanagement."

Fighting in Burma's ethnic regions has pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand, along with millions of migrant workers seeking jobs outside of Burma's non-performing economy. McCain expressed his thanks for Thailand's long record of "care for Burma's refugees, at no small cost to the Thai government or its people." The delegation was in Bangkok after visiting the Philippines and Vietnam, before heading to Burma on Sunday.

McCain said that they did not discuss the recent jailing of U.S. citizen Joe Gordon with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra during their Friday meeting. "The State Department and the embassy here say they have raised it at the highest level," he McCain.

In Vietnam, the U.S. delegation said they raised human rights issues with a government that could be set to assume Burma's long-held position as ASEAN's worst rights offender. Vietnam is seeking what McCain described as a "long, long list" of arms from the United States, as tensions between Vietnam and China grow over the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam. "Concern about a rising China is on the lips of leaders in Vietnam and the Philippines," said Lieberman.

But that will not happen without some human rights reforms in Vietnam—likely, as in Burma, to include the release of political prisoners. "There are certain weapons systems that the Vietnamese would like to buy from us or receive from us, and we'd like to be able to transfer these systems to them, but it's not going to happen unless they improve their human rights record," said McCain.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: 

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