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Lawmakers Call on State Department to Expel Burma's US Ambassador - 2003-06-18

A key U.S. lawmaker is urging the Bush administration to send Burma's ambassador to the United States back to Rangoon to protest the Burmese government's detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asking that Washington downgrade diplomatic ties with the military government in Rangoon until Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners are freed.

"It is another way of conveying the message that we consider this a pariah regime that does not deserve even the respect of having an ambassador here," he said.

Mr. McConnell's proposal has the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. Both Senators sponsored a Senate-passed bill to tighten sanctions against Burma, a measure which has the support of the Bush administration. It includes a ban on all Burmese imports. The House of Representatives is considering similar legislation.

The Senate acted on the measure after Aung San Suu Kyi was detained late last month following a clash between opposition activists and government supporters in northern Burma. The government says she is being held in what it calls 'protective custody'.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing later Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner said the Bush administration supports the goals of the Senate bill. He said the administration is considering a number of measures to pressure the Burmese government, including an import ban, restrictions on travel to Burma, and a freeze on assets of members of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

Mr. Craner said the United States will continue to work with countries in the region to press for democratic change in Burma. He said the statement Wednesday by foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations meeting in Phnom Penh demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi sent an important signal to Burma's military leaders:

"They have begun to get the message, as they should, that they are an embarrassment to the other countries in the region, and that the other countries are tiring of having this kind of mess in their neighborhood," hd said.

But Mr. Craner stopped short at endorsing calls for the U.N. Security Council to consider imposing sanctions on Burma. He noted the possibility that a sanctions resolution could be vetoed by China, a permanent member of the Security Council and a supporter of engagement with Burma.

"What I would hate to see is the Burmese regime trumpeting a failure by the U.N. to bring sanctions as a victory for them," he said.

A new report by an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations urges the Security Council to impose sanctions on the Burmese government.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won the country's last election in 1990 by a landslide, but was never allowed to take power.

The pro-democracy leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle to promote democracy, was released from house arrest last year after 19 months of captivity. She was also detained by the government for six years ending in 1995.