US lawmakers proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military officials on Thursday over the treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, one of the strongest efforts yet for Washington to intervene in the humanitarian crisis.
Introduced the day before Republican Donald Trump leaves on his first trip to Asia as president, the legislation would reimpose some sanctions lifted last year as Myanmar returned to democracy. It also would bar the United States from supplying most assistance to the country’s military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya are held accountable.
The measure does not target Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, head of Myanmar’s civilian-led government and a Nobel peace laureate who still enjoys strong support among some US officials.
But congressional aides said it is intended to underscore a strong desire among many members of Congress for her to do more to help the Rohingya.
The legislation is sponsored by lawmakers including the Republican Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, and Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
‘This bill will allow Congress to strengthen the president’s hand by making it clear to Burmese officials that there will be consequences for their crimes against humanity,’ Cardin said in a statement.
Among other things, it re-imposes a ban on jade and rubies from Myanmar and requires a report on which individuals should be subjected to sanctions, and instructs the US treasury department not to support international financial assistance programmes that partner with enterprises owned by the Myanmar military.
A companion bill is also being introduced in the House of Representatives. That measure is also bipartisan, led by Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Republican Representative Steve Chabot, another foreign affairs panel member.
Members of Congress have been clamouring for a strong response to the plight of the Rohingya, and the Trump administration has been weighing labelling their treatment ‘ethnic cleansing.’
The state department announced on Thursday that secretary of state Rex Tillerson would accompany Trump on his trip to Asia, and also stop in Myanmar.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since security forces responded to Rohingya militants’ attacks in August with a crackdown that has included reports of burnt villages and widespread killings. The United Nations has denounced it as a classic example of ethnic cleansing.
Proposed US sanctions targeting Myanmar’s military for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims would hinder the fledgling civilian government sharing power with the generals, a spokesman for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Friday.
The bill, introduced by members of the US senate on the eve of Donald Trump’s departure on his first trip to Asia since becoming president in January, seeks to reimpose some sanctions lifted last year as Myanmar returned to democracy.
The measure would impose targeted sanctions and travel curbs on Myanmar military officials and bar the United States from supplying most assistance to the military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State are held accountable.
Responding to the moves in Washington, Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, told Reuters, ‘we need internal stability to improve the country’s economy. Imposing international sanctions directly affects the people in travel and in business investments, and there are many bad consequences.’
Myanmar officials would explain the government’s efforts on Rakhine during a visit by secretary of state Rex Tillerson scheduled for Nov 15, he added.
‘We will explain to him what we are doing when he comes here. We cannot tell him not to do that. And we don’t know what is US policy,’ Zaw Htay said.
Zaw Htay, a former army major who is a holdover from the quasi-civilian administration that handed over the reins last year, said the army, known as the Tatmadaw, had to be involved in Myanmar’s transition.
Myanmar was previously hit by sanctions over the military junta’s brutal suppression of the then opposition led by Suu Kyi, but Zaw Htay stressed the civilian government still has to work with the military.
‘The country’s reconstruction cannot be done only by the government. The Tatmadaw needs to be involved, it is very clear. Everything has to undergo negotiation with the Tatmadaw under the 2008 constitution,’ he said, referring to the charter drawn up by the junta before Myanmar began its democracy transition.
‘Sanctions and pressures affect the government’s work. It won’t be a positive result if they impose sanctions, as with the previous experience (of sanctions).’
He added, ‘Of course, it will damage all the business investments, not only military-owned (businesses). It will definitely have a bad affect. There can only be bad results.’
Republican Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, and Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were among the lawmakers who have sponsored the bill.
A companion bill is also being introduced in the House of Representatives.
Members of Congress have pressed for a strong response to the plight of the Rohingya, and the Trump administration has been weighing labelling the actions by Myanmar’s military as ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Myanmar has rejected that accusation, defending the military’s actions as a counter-insurgency operation provoked by Rohingya militant attacks on 30 security posts in Rakhine State on Aug 25.
Zaw Htay said Myanmar was calling for the international community to ‘cooperate positively’ on the Rakhine issue, rather than focusing on what he called mere allegations of abuse by security forces.
‘We are not ignoring human rights abuses,’ he said.
‘They are all allegations. The international diplomats and international organisations who are saying what happened are always using allegations, without evidence. No one can give strong evidence of their allegations, although we asked for it.’
Myanmar had so far been unable to take action based on the claims made by refugees in Bangladesh, he said. ‘We will take action if they are right...So cooperate with us by showing strong evidence, rather than basing it on just allegations.’
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