U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday expressed concern over “credible reports” of atrocities committed by Myanmar military forces during a crackdown in northern Rakhine state, but said that new sanctions against the Southeast Asian country would not resolve the crisis.
Tillerson met with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, where he condemned the deadly Aug. 25 attacks on police outposts by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and said he was distressed that more than 615,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee to Bangladesh.
“Well, there are various sanction bills that are being drafted and considered, and I’ve been trying to follow those as best I can while I’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks, but I will be looking carefully at those when I return to Washington tomorrow night,” he said during a news conference.
“I think broad-based economic sanctions against the entire country is not something that I would think would be advisable at this time,” he said.
“We’re here to support Myanmar,” he said. “We want Myanmar to succeed. We want its democracy to succeed. And so actions that sets back the ability to provide economic activity, jobs for people, I have a hard time seeing how that helps resolve this crisis.”
Tillerson, however, did not rule out targeted sanctions on individuals who committed atrocities and said an impartial investigation of the crisis is necessary.
“In terms of targeted individuals, I think, again, all of that has to be evidence based,” he said.
“If we have credible information … that we believe to be very reliable that certain individuals were responsible for certain acts that we find unacceptable, then targeted sanctions on individuals very well may be appropriate,” he said.
Some U.S. senators are pursuing legislation to impose economic and travel sanctions on the armed forces and their business interests.
“The recent serious allegations of abuses in Rakhine state demand a credible and impartial investigation, and those who commit human rights abuses or violations must be held accountable,” Tillerson said.
Myanmar has blocked a three-person commission appointed by the United Nations to look into reports of atrocities committed against the Rohingya, whom Myanmar considers illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has systematically discriminated against.
Though the U.N. and rights groups have said the atrocities committed in northern Rakhine amount to ethnic cleansing, the U.S. has avoided using the term.
“I think clearly what we know occurred in Rakhine state that led to so many people fleeing the area has a number of characteristics of certainly crimes against humanity,” Tillerson said.
“Whether it meets all of the criteria for ethnic cleansing, I think we continue to evaluate that ourselves,” he said.
“I think this is the reason why an independent investigation would be very useful to help us understand not just who — who to hold accountable — but also why — what were the motivations behind what occurred,” he said.
Tillerson also announced that the U.S. will provide an additional U.S. $47 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees, bringing the United States response to the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh to nearly $151 million since October 2016, when ARSA launched smaller-scale attacks on border guard stations.
Responding to a question about international criticism that she has remained silent on the refugee crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi said the State Counselor’s Office has issued many statements on the matter and that she herself has made statements focusing on speech that “avoids inflaming sectarian tensions.”
“[I]f you check, you will see that I’ve not been silent,” she said. “I’ve not been making very incendiary statements or very exciting statements, but we have always kept the public informed for what has been going on and what we are trying to do to make the situation better.”
Observers in Myanmar had mixed reactions to Tillerson’s comments about sanctions.
“People are talking about U.S. sanctions on Myanmar because the media have been writing about it,” said Nyan Win, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
“Actually, United States hasn’t said it will impose sanctions on Myanmar, although some individuals in the government might think to do it,” he said. “It’s good that Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi has met with Tillerson.”
Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, however, believe that the U.S. must take stronger action against Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya.
Earlier this month, he told RFA in Washington that the U.S. government must call for an immediate arms embargo of Myanmar and targeted sanctions as well as send a U.N. peacekeeping force to northern Rakhine to protect the Rohingya.
“Tillerson can’t decide on sanctions alone,” he told RFA on Wednesday. “It is too early to say what would happen next because Congress has already submitted a draft [bill]. It is very possible that Myanmar will be pressured after the resolution is made in the U.S. Congress.”
Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said Tillerson’s comments about sanctions are an indication that the U.S. continues to support Myanmar's transition to democracy.
Tillerson urged Aung San Su Kyi to “resolve all challenges and problems in Myanmar, including the Rakhine crisis by investigating and taking action according to the law and human rights standards,” he said.
Sein Win, director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, said new sanctions would hinder the country’s democratic development.
“The U.S. doesn’t want Myanmar to have any delays during the democratic transition period,” he said. “Not imposing sanctions is good for Myanmar.”
“If sanctions were imposed, we will go back to the old ways,” he said.
Tillerson wrapped up his talks in Myanmar as two human rights groups released a report describing “mounting evidence” of genocide against Rohingya Muslims.
The report by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights titled “They Tried to Kill Us All: Atrocity Crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar,” is based on a year of research and more than 200 in-person interviews in Myanmar and on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border with Rohingya survivors, eyewitnesses, and international aid workers, the groups said.
“Burma’s leaders have denied that crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing have taken place against Rohingya victims, defying statements of high-level United Nations officials that mass atrocities likely have taken place,” said the report, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
“The Rohingya have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades, and the international community must not fail them now when their very existence in Myanmar is threatened,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Without urgent action, there’s a high risk of more mass atrocities,” Hudson said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, said it is insufficient simply to condemn the atrocities.
“Condemnations aren’t enough,” Smith warmed.“Without urgent international action towards accountability, more mass killings are likely.”
Meanwhile, the Myanmar government’s newly created Union Enterprises for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development (UEHRD) on Wednesday unveiled some details of its resettlement plan for refugees returning to northern Rakhine state from Bangladesh and other areas.
The committee’s chief coordinator Aung Tun Thet said the government will accept 73 Hindu households as the first group of refugees and will build houses for them in Ohtein village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township.
“We have considered sending the refugees to the places where they lived [before],” he said during a meeting on development in Rakhine at the state government headquarters in Sittwe.
“The resettlement plan is also important because development and peace are necessary [for Rakhine],” he said.
Aung Tun That also urged local and foreign businessmen who attended the meeting to help the UEHRD’s mission to develop the region.
Rakhine state finance minister Kyaw Thein Aye said a hotel zone will be built in Kyaut Pandu village and a tourism site will be created in Maungdaw’s Ale Than Kyaw village.
President Htin Kyaw created the UEHRD in October as a way for the private sector, local nongovernmental institutions, civil society institutions, partner nations, U.N. agencies, and international NGOs, to work together to implement projects in all sectors to develop the largely impoverished and ethnically and religiously divided state.
The committee is tasked with overseeing the provision of humanitarian aid, coordinating resettlement and rehabilitation efforts, carrying out regional development, promoting lasting peace, and arranging audits of funds from the state and local and foreign donors.
In a related development, Myanmar and Bangladeshi border police agreed on Wednesday to fight ARSA terrorists during a six-day conference on security and law enforcement between the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), which began on Monday in Naypyidaw.
Myanmar has already given Bangladesh a list of more than 1,000 suspected terrorists reported to have been involved in attacks in northern Rakhine state and who subsequently fled to Bangladesh, along with their photos and related documents, said Brigadier-General Myo Swe Win, the MPF's chief of staff.
Both countries agreed to place priority on antiterrorist organizations, he said.
“Myanmar requested that Bangladesh investigate terrorists and hand them over to Myanmar,” Myo Swe Win said.
“The BGB director-general said that his country had never and would not accept any unlawful organizations, insurgents, or terrorists on its soil,” he said. “It will investigate not only members of the terrorist organization ARSA, but also other criminals, and hand them over to Myanmar.”
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Khin Khin Ei, Win Ko Ko Latt, Kyaw Thu, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.