Top Republicans at odds over President Obama's overture to Burma

High-ranking Republicans are sharply at odds over the Obama administration's announcement Friday that it is restoring full diplomatic relations with the pariah nation of Burma.

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said in a statement late Friday that sending an ambassador to Burma, also known as Myanmar, would be "grossly premature." 

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At the same time Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is traveling to the country next week, praised the administration's decision in the wake of the ruling regime's release of more than 600 prisoners of conscience on Friday and its recent ceasefire with a rebel group.

"In light of these positive steps, I welcome Secretary Clinton’s announcement that the United States will now begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the government in Nay Pyi Taw, including the exchange of Ambassadors," McCain said in a statement. "I will be traveling with a Congressional delegation to Southeast Asia next week, which will include visits to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon. I look forward to continuing my discussions with government leaders and [democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi about the next steps of their country's development and how the United States, especially the Congress, can support this process of change."

Ros-Lehtinen however said the regime retained the power to rearrest anyone it chooses. And the preliminary agreements with the Karen National Union, she said, "still do not include a nationwide ceasefire, human rights guarantees, or unrestricted press access to vulnerable areas."

"I am distressed that the Administration is prematurely and publicly discussing any major concessions to the Burmese regime, such as nominating an Ambassador," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Any concession to the dictatorship would be grossly premature." 

The announcement comes as the U.S. is seeking new partnerships in Asia as it shifts its attention to the Pacific. Clinton visited Burma last month, the first visit by a U.S. secretary of State since 1955.

The U.S. downgraded its diplomatic representation in Burma to a chargé d'affaires after the country's military junta cracked down on political opponents in 1988. Relations deteriorated further after the regime refused to recognize the results of parliamentary elections in 1990 that were won by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. New elections are scheduled for this year.

"The world needs to see that the upcoming April elections are not the same kind of sham that we saw in 2010," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I call on the Administration to immediately cease talks with the ruthless tyrants in Burma until the junta has been replaced with a duly elected, democratic government that respects human rights and civil liberties."