WASHINGTON — U.S. policymakers are criticizing the role of Myanmar security forces in the nighttime ouster of the ruling party chief this week, which shows the fragility of political reforms as the Southeast Asian nation gears up for November elections.
The State Department and the Senate majority leader both voiced concern Friday over how general-turned-politician Shwe Mann was removed as party leader on Wednesday night in a murky power play reminiscent of the decades the country also known as Burma spent under direct military rule.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most prominent congressional voice on Myanmar, has expressed mounting unease over the country's direction. He said the manner of Shwe Mann's ouster "should give pause to supporters of democratic reform in Burma."
"The reported role of state security forces in the effort to unseat a party official is deeply disturbing, especially given Burmese history," McConnell, of Kentucky, said in a statement.
Security forces had surrounded the headquarters of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the capital Naypyitaw, and the party announced that Shwe Mann was being removed as chairman. He remains a lawmaker and parliament speaker.
In many ways, Shwe Mann's career has epitomized the nation's historic shift from military rule to fledgling democracy. The former junta member was a close associate of then-dictator Than Shwe and visited North Korea in 2008 to promote defense ties. But since Myanmar opened up, winning its diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S., he had cooperated with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Shwe Mann has visited Washington twice, most recently in May. He met top administration officials.
Tensions have been building for months between him and President Thein Sein, who could now be poised to seek a second term. Shwe Mann's star fell after he supported a failed effort in early July to push through constitutional amendments that would have reduced the military's role in parliament.
President Barack Obama has counted Myanmar's reforms as an important achievement of his foreign policy, but stalled reforms and repression of minority Muslims has put the administration on the defensive over its rapid move to roll back sanctions that critics say was too hasty.
Katina Adams, a State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, said: "It is important that authorities act in a way that reinforces — not decreases — the Burmese public's confidence in their government's commitment to democratic processes."
This week, Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called for U.S. sanctions on those responsible for increasing human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and others in Myanmar, saying thousands have been displaced or disenfranchised.
"The failure to do so undermines U.S. policy of promoting democratic reforms and human rights," Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter Tuesday to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.