YANGON — US Senator John McCain, who died on Saturday, was no stranger to Myanmar. The 81-year-old was a consistent supporter of democratic change in the country and actively lobbied to impose sanctions against its former military rulers.
He first visited in 1996 and met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the then opposition leader. He was subsequently banned by the military government for 15 years, not visiting Myanmar again until 2011.
“I acknowledge that this new government represents some change from the past, and one illustration of this change was their willingness to allow me to return to this country after 15 years’ worth of attempts to do so on my part were rejected,” he said during his second visit.
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military regime following clashes between her supporters and pro-government demonstrators in northern Myanmar in 2003, the US lawmaker was furious. He took to the Senate floor to call on the US administration to take further steps to isolate the military government, calling on Congress to consider legislation banning Myanmar imports to the US and urging European parliaments to do likewise.
“The junta cannot oversee the reform and opening of Burma, for it remains the biggest obstacle to the freedom and prosperity of the Burmese people,” he stressed. “Burma cannot change as long as the junta rules, without restraint or remorse.”
Fast-forward to 2011, when, allowed back in the country, he held a series of meetings with officials of the then military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party-led government as well as with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
After the meetings, he told the media that the new government wanted a better relationship with the US, adding that the US would respond positively if Myanmar made progress through “tangible actions.”
“But as I told the government leaders … any improvement in relations will need to be built not on warm words, but on concrete actions,” he said.
Since then, Myanmar has begun a democratic transition that led to the 2015 general election, which paved the way for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to become the country’s ruling party. In 2016, the US ended its sanctions against Myanmar.
But when Myanmar security forces launched operations against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late 2017, triggering the exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, McCain, speaking as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would strip language from a bill authorizing defense spending that would have expanded US military cooperation with Myanmar.
He and a group of his colleagues introduced a resolution calling on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now Myanmar’s de facto leader, to intervene in the Rohingya issue.
“But there has been no action to date,” McCain said in September last year.
More than a month before his death, he called for the release of two Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar on suspicion of violating the Official Secrets Act. He described the charges against them as “outrageous and politically motivated.”
“The bogus charges should be dropped, and these journalists should be released immediately,” McCain said in a post on Twitter.
The verdict in the journalists’ case was supposed to be delivered on Monday, but was postponed to next week as the judge was not well, according to a court announcement.