By Matthew Pennington
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate has confirmed the nomination of the first U.S. special envoy to Myanmar and a new ambassador to Vietnam whose appointment had been blocked for months by lawmakers.
The two appointments were approved by unanimous consent late Tuesday before Congress entered its summer recess. They are key to President Barack Obama’s policy of trying to deepen U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia.
As special representative and policy coordinator for Myanmar, Derek Mitchell will lead Washington’s efforts to reach out to the country’s military-dominated government and encourage democratic reform.
Mitchell was previously a senior defense official for Asia-Pacific affairs. His new position has the rank of ambassador. The position has been vacant since it was mandated under 2008 legislation that toughened sanctions against Myanmar’s regime.
In the past two years, the Obama administration has shed a long-standing U.S. policy of isolating Myanmar that had failed to force change. The resulting engagement policy has seen several visits to Myanmar by senior U.S. officials, but has fared little better.
While the ruling junta has formally disbanded after staging Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years, military figures still control the government, which has taken few steps toward concrete change.
Mitchell, who has also worked at Washington think tanks and has wide experience in Asia, told a confirmation hearing in late June that he would seek to coordinate with international partners, including Southeast Asian nations, China, India, and Europe to find a more coherent approach in dealing with Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The Senate also confirmed the nomination of David Shear as ambassador to Vietnam that had been blocked by lawmakers protesting the State Department’s handling of the stalled adoptions of 16 Vietnamese orphans by American families.
The cases went into bureaucratic limbo in 2008 when Washington suspended its adoption agreement with Vietnam over broad suspicions of fraud and baby selling, and as Vietnam moved to join the international Hague Convention on adoptions that imposes tighter rules. Some families blame the U.S. State Department for the delays.
Two senators lifted their hold on the confirmation after Shear outlined his strategy for expediting the cases with the Vietnamese government, staff of the lawmakers said.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, where three of the families live, was satisfied that Shear was interested in resolving the cases, Rubio’s spokesman Alex Burgos said.
Shear indicated to Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu in a meeting last week that the adoptions would be a top priority and the senator felt the families would be better served if the confirmation went ahead, according to an aide to Landrieu. The Louisiana lawmaker advocates on adoption issues.
Obama nominated Shear, a 29-year foreign service veteran, as ambassador in December 2010. Shear previously served as deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Former enemies, the United States and Vietnam normalized relations in 2005. The Obama administration has sought to deepen those ties as has Vietnam. ♦