WASHINGTON — Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, easing up on his long-held tough stance on Myanmar, said Tuesday he planned to allow key sanctions legislation against the Southeast Asian nation to lapse because of the country's progress toward democracy.
McConnell, R-Ky., made the announcement after meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein, who is making a landmark visit to Washington. On Monday, Thein Sein became the first Myanmar leader to visit the White House in nearly 50 years and received strong backing from President Barack Obama.
Thein Sein, a former general, has been hailed for leading a historic shift from five decades of military rule, although serious human rights violations persist. House members Tuesday pressed him to release more political prisoners and end communal violence that has spiked in recent months and killed hundreds, mostly minority Muslims.
The sanctions in question authorize an import ban, already waived by Obama, meaning that should the legislation lapse, it would make little practical difference on restrictions now in place. But it would mean the administration could not re-impose the ban should Myanmar backtrack on reforms.
It also marks an important shift by McConnell, who for the past two decades has been a leading voice in Congress on policy toward the country also known as Burma. He's been a staunch supporter of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and was a fierce critic of the former ruling junta that was replaced by a nominally civilian government in 2011.
"The administration has extended an olive branch to the new Burmese government and I believe it is time for Congress to do the same," McConnell told the Senate.
The office Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who co-sponsored the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether she shared McConnell's view.
Myanmar policy has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Washington. The administration, with congressional support, has suspended broad restrictions on trade and investment over the past year after Suu Kyi was elected to parliament and hundreds of political prisoners were freed.
McConnell said the objective of the sanctions was to change the behavior of Myanmar's government, and to a significant extent, that has taken place.
"I believe renewing sanctions would be a slap in the face to Burmese reformers and embolden those within Burma who want to slow or reverse reform," he said.
The European Union last month lifted its economic sanctions, and McConnell said not renewing U.S. trade sanctions would bring greater certainty for American companies looking to invest in Myanmar and put them on "an equal footing with their Western competitors."
He said Congress would retain leverage on Myanmar through other sanctions that remain on the books.
Myanmar, which is rich in minerals, oil and natural gas but still very poor, is one of Asia's last untapped markets. The U.S. last month announced it was considering duty-free access for Myanmar to U.S. markets, and on Tuesday the two governments signed a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement.
However, others in Congress are adopting an increasingly critical stance toward Thein Sein's government. Four Democratic lawmakers, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., on Tuesday presented the Myanmar president with a list of nearly 250 political prisoners they said should be freed.
They also called for an end to attacks on minorities and for provision of humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of villagers would have been displaced by violence.
Despite the historic changes in Myanmar since 2011, human rights groups say authorities have failed to stop, and have sometimes abetted, sectarian attacks. The violence has been directed overwhelmingly against Muslims but has not led to any criminal trials against members of the country's Buddhist majority.
Voicing concern over the use of rape as a weapon of war in Myanmar, Crowley introduced a bill last week with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to renew the legislation McConnell intends to let lapse. Crowley said he wants to ensure that a ban on imports of Myanmar gems – mostly mined from a Northern conflict zone – remains in place.
McConnell said Tuesday restrictions on jadeite and rubies were likely to remain in place under other statutes.