Congress

McConnell questions Pompeo on Hong Kong, Myanmar in Louisville visit

‘What’s your take on Aung San Suu Kyi?’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the University of Louisville on Monday. (University of Louisville/screenshot)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in his element Monday morning as he welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the University of Louisville.

The Kentucky Republican served as interviewer for an onstage discussion with Pompeo, who is widely known to be the preferred candidate of McConnell and other senior Republicans for the Senate seat in Kansas being opened by the pending retirement of GOP Sen. Pat Roberts.

While McConnell did not ask the former CIA director and House member from Kansas about his interest in running for that Senate seat next year (at least not on stage), the question and answer session hit on some of McConnell’s other favorite topics.

“What’s your take on Aung San Suu Kyi?” McConnell asked in his closing question at the event hosted by the McConnell Center.

The Senate majority leader has long been the leading voice on U.S. policy toward Myanmar, having a decades-long association with Suu Kyi, whose  holds the title of State Counsellor, where she leads the civilian government of the country also known as Burma.

“I had a longstanding, you know, note-passing relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi for two decades while she was under House arrest and have watched with great interest the attempt to evolve from a military dictatorship into something more western-leaning,” he said. “But there seems to be some backsliding, and she’s been under a lot of criticism for not basically standing up to the military and reacting more aggressively to the Rohingya atrocities that have occurred.”

McConnell noted that Suu Kyi visited the McConnell Center when she was first able to visit the United States, back in 2012.

“From the United States perspective, we don’t choose leaders — we choose good outcomes, and so our efforts there have been to put pressure on the Burmese military. You’ve seen us sanction Burmese military leaders. The previous administration refused to do that,” Pompeo said. “We’ve said these are the really bad actors. These are the, in this case, men who are engaged in activities that would frighten us all.”

Pompeo said that the military forces in Myanmar, the group most responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim population, maintain significant power.

“She is facing a true conundrum,” Pompeo said of Suu Kyi. “Our hope, our expectation is that she will engage in every activity that she can to try and drive the right outcomes, outcomes that I believe in her heart she wants for her country and for her people, to drive them in the right direction.”

Pompeo focused his prepared remarks on Western Hemisphere affairs, but the exchange between McConnell and Pompeo touched on several areas of foreign policy, including Trump administration policy toward Iran and this week’s NATO summit in London.

McConnell kicked off the discussion by highlighting his own work over the past decades on Hong Kong policy. He noted the legislation that President Donald Trump signed last week that updated a bill first introduced by McConnell back in 1992.

“It strikes me, Mister Secretary, that this could be  [Chinese President Xi Jinping’s]worst nightmare,” McConnell said. “That this view that being able to express yourself and being able to elect your own leaders would metastasize into the mainland.”

“Thanks for handing me the requirement to certify, now that’s great. Put it in my lap,” Pompeo quipped about the new law. “Deeply appreciative.”

“You have a people that is desirous of having the Chinese Communist Party live up to the promise that it made back in 1997. It’s a ratified treaty. It sits at the United Nations. They talked about having one country but two systems, and their obligation to honor that,” Pompeo said. “Our effort is to make sure that those weren’t empty promises that were made to the people of Hong Kong. The Chinese communist party owes it to those people to live up to the commitments that they made.”

Pompeo joined a long list of political leaders who have joined McConnell for events hosted by his namesake center when he traveled to the Louisville campus Monday morning.

The University of Louisville, McConnell’s undergraduate alma mater, has long been a point of pride for the majority leader, and a visit by another secretary of State gave him yet another chance to tout the success stories of the affiliated scholars program.

The majority leader recognized Kentucky’s newly elected Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Secretary of State Michael Adams, both alumni of the McConnell scholars program and Republicans who previously worked for McConnell.

The program itself is nonpartisan, however. 

“We’ve graduated now over 250 young men and women. They are now taking what they learned here and making a positive impact throughout the commonwealth and around the globe,” McConnell said. “We do have Democrats in this program, too. They just haven’t run yet, or at least haven’t won yet.”

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