Published October 10, 2007
WASHINGTON – As soldiers in Myanmar killed and hunted down Buddhist monks and pro-democracy demonstrators, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stood up on the Senate floor day after day to berate the country's ruling generals and cheer the dissidents' courage.
The mild-mannered Kentucky Republican has been Myanmar's fiercest congressional critic for more than a decade, long before the junta's crackdown last month sparked condemnation among McConnell's colleagues and around the world.
More recent advocates for the protesters -- rock star Bono; President Bush's wife, Laura; American comedian Jim Carrey -- are better known. But McConnell's focus has made his name and message familiar to many in Myanmar, the southeast Asian country also known as Burma.
Now the top Republican in the Senate, McConnell was, for many years, a leader of the panel responsible for financing international programs. With that power, he is credited with putting and keeping Myanmar high on the agendas of the State Department and White House during times when it received little public attention.
McConnell, in a recent interview, said the country caught his attention in the early 1990s when he read about the junta and the pro-democracy movement it crushed in 1988, killing at least 3,000 people in the process, and about the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate under house arrest.
When asked to explain his continuing absorption, McConnell said, "I've had a long-standing interest; I wish I could claim I've had an impact."
Last week, there was ample evidence of his support for the biggest anti-government protests in two decades and of his anger at the military attacks that followed. He sent out daily statements to the news media, he testified at hearings and pushed a resolution of condemnation, and he taped a video message of support for the protesters.
Mrs. Bush has been an outspoken advocate for human rights there, departing from the role she has cut out for herself in the White House as a first lady who focuses mostly on domestic issues like reading programs and the arts.
In an interview with USA Today published in Tuesday's editions, she said the administration is poised to levy additional sanctions against the government there unless it loosens its grip on the populace.
"The crackdown has been brutal," she told the newspaper.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, repeated that warning Wednesday, saying the junta "must stop the brutal treatment of its people and peacefully transition to democracy or face new sanctions from the United States."
Some politicians may hesitate to alienate Myanmar's big neighbor, China, with its booming economy, or Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S. hunt for terrorists. But they see little downside in taking up Myanmar as a cause.
As a pet issue, though, the country offers few political benefits to lawmakers, who often adopt causes that appeal to the ethnicity or interests of the voters in their home states.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said no constituency in Kentucky demands action on Myanmar from McConnell. "The only reason to do what he's doing is because he cares about the issue," he said.
McConnell, who is married to Elaine Chao, Bush's labor secretary, is known in Washington as a dedicated conservative. In diplomatic and human rights circles, his name also is closely associated with Myanmar.
Michael Green, Bush's former senior adviser on Asia, said that during Bush's first term McConnell and his staff were "considered dangerous, single-issue sentimentalists" in some parts of the State Department.
Some Asia hands wanted to move beyond the tough U.S. sanctions McConnell championed and engage the regime, Green said. They argued that China was making strong inroads in the region because of a U.S. focus on driving Myanmar's junta out of power through isolation.
Green, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said McConnell made his case directly to the secretary of state. Senior officials, he said, "did not want to cross him on Burma" because he had the power to block support of State Department programs.
Bruce Brown, a deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said top U.S. diplomats often were briefed on Myanmar before meeting with or testifying before McConnell. "He's a tough guy," Brown said, "and I say that in a good sort of way."
After years of urging the United Nations and Myanmar's neighbors to step up pressure, and of blasting the junta from Washington, McConnell's frustration occasionally emerges. "I can't think of an issue I've spent more time on, over a longer period of time, and seen less results," he told colleagues at a recent hearing.
Still, he said in the interview, he has been pulling for the protesters "and hoping they would stay in the streets and overwhelm this regime with numbers."
"But it takes great courage," he added, "and it's easy for us to preach from over here, sitting safely in our offices."
Malinowski said McConnell's advocacy has made him well-known in Myanmar, largely through foreign radio broadcasts.
In a recent e-mail provided by McConnell's staff, with the request that the sender not be identified, a Myanmar student studying abroad wrote: "Your words greatly attract my heart. ... I do believe you will support our democratic movement till we win."