Myanmar’s armed forces on Wednesday denounced a decision by the United States to slap travel restrictions on the country’s army chief, three senior generals, and their immediate families for the officials’ roles in a 2017 army campaign that killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and drove more than 740,000 members of the minority group into Bangladesh.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo barred Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the other senior commanders from entering the U.S., because of their “responsibility for gross human rights violations, including in extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine State, Burma, during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.”
The U.S. government's announcement also named Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo, and Brigadier General Aung Aung as sanctions targets, though the latter two have been promoted to major general since the crackdown.
While the U.S. decision is an affront to the Myanmar military, the armed forces will continue business as usual, said military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is the organization undertaking the duty to safeguard the state,” he said. “This action harms our dignity.”
“Whether they approve or not, our efforts for building an international standard military force will continue,” he said. “Instead of responding to this action, we will focus on implementing our ongoing work.”
The government of Myanmar, which the U.S. officially calls Burma, has largely denied that its forces committed atrocities against the Rohingya that United Nations investigators, rights groups, and some nations say amounted to ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide.
In June 2018, the European Union and Canada placed travel restrictions and asset freezes on seven senior Myanmar military officials deemed responsible for human rights violations against the Rohingya, including Major General Maung Maung Soe, who was sanctioned by the U.S. the previous December.
In August 2018, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on several military and police commanders and two army units for their “involvement in ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine state and for widespread human rights abuses in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, where the Myanmar military is battling ethnic armies.
In response to the latest move, Zaw Htay, director general of Myanmar President Win Myint’s office, said the government has been addressing military accountability for alleged human rights abuses through the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) set up by the Myanmar government in September 2018 and through the military’s own investigative team.
“Such actions [by the U.S.] will not contribute to resolving the issue in Rakhine but rather worsen the problems and challenges,” he said.
“The international community should give us time and space for the ICOE to come up with a credible report,” he said.
Previous investigations by Myanmar of atrocities in Rakhine and other conflict zones have been dismissed by rights groups and Rohingya supporters as whitewash efforts.
‘Sanctions do nothing’
Rights groups and activists have criticized the latest U.S sanctions on the four senior military leaders as an ineffective move that will not prevent further rights violations in Myanmar.
“They are being hit back for what they have done, but I don’t think the military’s offenses and rights violations in ethnic states will stop,” Myanmar human rights activist Thet Swe Win said.
“The sanctions do nothing more than publicly humiliate them by name,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They are intended for political purposes.”
Kyaw Win, executive director of London-based Burma Human Rights Network, said the military has violated the rights not only of the Rohingya, but also of other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar for years.
“The military has committed many human rights violations over the years not only on Rohingyas, but you can see it currently against [ethnic] Rakhine nationals too, [and] not only in Rakhine state, but also in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states,” he said.
“If you look at the military leaders you'll see they have become very, very wealthy, and to protect this wealth, they need power,” he added. “And in order to maintain their power, they have resorted to using religion as a tool.”
The Southeast Asian rights group Fortify Rights tweeted Thursday about the U.S. restrictions, saying “This alone is not sufficient but a step toward more justice and accountability.”
Ethnic Chin human rights and women’s rights activist Cheery Zahau said the U.S. previously relaxed sanctions against Myanmar to support the country’s democratic transition, but has had to revert to restrictions again in light of the dismal rights situation.
“The U.S. government relaxed the sanctions to boost the democratic transition, but the human rights situation didn’t improve and has even gotten worse,” she said, pointing to the atrocities in Rakhine state during the crackdown, and arrests of journalists and activists critical of the military and the government.
“From these, it’s evident that neither the government not the military has done anything to improve human rights in the country,” she said. “That’s why the four leaders have been sanctioned again.”
'Closer to China'
Myanmar’s former information minister Ye Htut cautioned that that new restrictions could push the armed forces in the developing democracy away from the West and closer to China.
“From 2011 to 2016, the Tatmadaw has tried to build a ‘standard army,’ according to the commander-in-chief’s words,” he said. “So now, military-to-military cooperation with Western countries for security purposes will cease. To put it more bluntly, this action will push the Tatmadaw away from Western countries and closer to China.”
RFA could not reach officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
Ye Tun, a former lawmaker from Shan State's Hsipaw (Thibaw) township said the military's adherence to regulations has deteriorated during the current civilian-led administration.
“The military has fallen short when it comes to following rules and regulations compared to what it did under [former president’s] Thein Sein’s administration,” he said. “For example, causing injuries to civilians during military operations and the accidental killings of civilians during conflicts. The number of cases like this has risen amid the ongoing conflicts in Rakhine state.”
RFA contacted Myanmar human rights defenders and other lawmakers for comment, but most of them declined to speak due to fear of a military backlash.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.