U.S. voices concerns to Myanmar party head on race, religion bills

Washington - A senior U.S. official met the head of Myanmar's ruling party and parliamentary speaker on Monday and expressed concerns about race and religion bills critics say discriminate against minority Muslims.

The U.S. State Department said that in a meeting with Shwe Mann in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of holding "inclusive, credible, and transparent" elections later this year.

Blinken also raised the need for constitutional reform, reconciliation with ethnic groups and "durable solutions" to human rights issues.

Blinken expressed U.S. concerns about draft race and religion bills critics say would restrict religious freedoms and the revocation of "white card" identity documents for minority Rohingya Muslims. He also called for an independent probe into the use of force to break up anti-government protests this year.

In February, the Myanmar government announced it would revoke temporary identification cards for Rohingyas on May 31, effectively disenfranchising them just days after parliament approved a law affirming their right to vote.

The current constitution bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for the presidency because she was married to a foreigner and includes a provision reserving 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military.

Shwe Mann, who is chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party as well as parliamentary speaker, said in Washington on Friday he had "aspirations" to change the constitution, but indicated time was short ahead of November general elections.

Shwe Mann is considered a front-runner for the presidency and said he would put himself up for election if he was nominated by his party, which is comprised largely of former military officers and was created from a social movement set up by the former junta.

Myanmar launched widespread economic and political reforms in 2011 after decades of military rule, convincing the United States and other Western countries to suspend most sanctions. But many in Myanmar now feel the reform process has stalled.

Aung San Suu Kyi told Reuters last month that President Thein Sein was insincere about reform and accused the United States and the West of being too optimistic about change.