Myanmar’s military rejected as “one-sided accusations” on Thursday a call by U.S. senators to slap sanctions on Myanmar's army chief for the 2017 campaign that drove some 740,000 Muslim minority Rohingya into Bangladesh in what the United Nations and rights groups said was an act of ethnic cleansing.
Four U.S. senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday that said Myanmar has shown "no credible signs of progress" in seeking accountability for killings, sexual violence and other atrocities against members of the mostly Muslim minority, AFP reported.
"The Trump administration has taken no action against these senior officials even though sanctions designations would send a strong message that the United States supports accountability for those perpetrating well-documented human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities," wrote the Democrat Senators Dick Durbin, Republican Senator Todd Young and others.
They called on the Trump administration to go beyond sanctions the U.S. Treasury Department imposed in August on four commanders accused of orchestrating massacres and slap sanctions on Myanmar's military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and other top officers under the Magnitsky Act.
The Magnitsky act, a U.S. law named after a Russian accountant and corruption whistleblower who died in prison, calls for the seizure of assets and a U.S. travel ban for foreign officials who violate human rights.
In August, a year after the atrocities against the Rohingya, a fact-finding mission working under the U.N. Human Rights Council said the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. It recommended Min Aung Hlaing, and five other generals for prosecution.
Asked about the U.S. senators’ call for sanctions Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of Myanmar's military information committee, repeated the military’s stock response to international critics.
“Our military chief has told local and international organizations, including the U.N. Security Council member countries when he met them, to give us concrete evidences instead of one-sided accusations,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“If they do so, we will carry out investigations based on it. We have also said the same in our (previous) statements,” he said.
Attacks on guard posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, on Aug. 25, 2017, triggered a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine.
The U.S. and the United Nations have said the atrocities amount to ethnic cleansing, though the Myanmar government has denied the allegations and prevented a U.N. team of investigators from entering the country to probe reports of the crimes. Access to the area by independent journalists is largely forbidden.
The Myanmar government has defended its military actions in Rakhine, calling them part of a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against ARSA.
Rights groups welcome move
Human rights groups welcomed the pressure on the military.
“When the international community looked at Myanmar, it didn't see any action against violations by the military, and we think it is an obstacle for Myanmar’s democracy process. We welcome U.S. senators’ efforts as it is a step towards actions against the ones who violated human rights,” said Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, an NGO.
“The military had all the time denied charges by the international community and has not done anything [about] these issues, so the international community has taken it as Myanmar's lack of willingness to safeguard human rights,” said Cheery Zahau, an ethnic minority Chin human rights activist.
Human rights groups estimate that between 6,000 and 10,000 people died in the military campaign, in which soldiers were aided by Rakhine Buddhists in attacking the Rohingya.
Buddhist-ruled Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group, denying them citizenship and work opportunities and has pejoratively described them as “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
Aye Nu Sein, vice chairwoman of the Arakan National Party, which represents Rakhine Buddhists, echoed the military line on the call for accountability.
“We need concrete evidence for all the charges made. I don’t like accusing [someone] without evidence,” she told RFA.
“I want justice according to the truth. If the U.S. found any violations by the military, appropriate action should be taken accordingly,” added Aye Nu Sein.
A U.S. Senate committee approved a bill in February 2018 to make it easier for the Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military leaders responsible for committing human rights atrocities against the Rohingya.
Last week the U.S. State Department faulted Myanmar’s government and military for its treatment of the Rohingya in the 2018 edition of the annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices."
“Independent investigations undertaken during the year found evidence that corroborated the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine state and further detailed the military’s killing, rape, and torture of unarmed villagers during a campaign of violence that displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh,” it said.
“Some evidence suggested preparatory actions on the part of security forces and other actors prior to the start of violence,” said the report, which said that an additional 13,764 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September 2018.
“The government prevented assistance from reaching displaced Rohingya and other vulnerable populations during the year by using access restrictions on the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies,” it said.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.