A U.S. Senate committee approved a bill that will 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 Rohingya Muslims.
The bill was approved on Thursday, the same day that a human rights group issued new details about ongoing atrocities against the Muslim minority group in northern Rakhine state.
If enacted into law, the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act will ban certain forms of military cooperation with the Myanmar military until the U.S. State and Defense departments certify that officials have ended the violence.
The bill, introduced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also supports reform in Myanmar’s economic and security sectors and encourages the Southeast Asian country’s successful power transition to a civilian government.
Nearly 700,000 other Rohingya have fled northern Rakhine since August 2017 when Myanmar security forces conducted a brutal military crackdown in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by the militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Their campaign targeting Rohingya communities included indiscriminate killings, rape, torture, and arson.
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.
“The scale of human rights abuses against the Rohingya people and other minority communities in Burma has been staggering,” said Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is one of the bill’s sponsors, referring to Myanmar by its British colonial name.
“The United States has a moral obligation to do all it can to prevent mass atrocities and ethnic cleansing — and to make clear to those responsible that their actions will not be tolerated,” McCain said in a statement, adding that the legislation’s passage out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is “a step in the right direction to protect Burma's fledgling democracy and hold accountable the senior military officials responsible for the slaughter and displacement” of the Rohingya.
Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in the statement that the legislation is not intended to hurt Myanmar’s economy or people, but rather to hold military officials responsible for their actions.
“That is why the legislation also requires a U.S. strategy for promoting inclusive economic growth as a vital element of a strategy to help Burma complete its political transition and finally free itself of military control,” he said.
Cardin also said that the bill marks a significant step to “recalibrate U.S. policy and engagement with Burma in light of the genocide and crimes against humanity that have taken place.”
In December 2017, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s Major General Maung Maung Soe, head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, who led the military’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya.
He was the first high-level military officer to be named in the sanctions for overseeing the campaign of atrocities and one of 52 individuals and entities that the U.S. has sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for alleged human rights violations and corruption.
PHR urges swift full passage
New York-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and human rights violations, hailed the committee’s bill and called on the full Senate and House of Representatives to pass it.
“We are encouraged by the committee’s vote and urge the Senate to bring the bill to a floor vote without delay in order to address the current humanitarian and human rights crises afflicting the Rohingya people,” Homer Venters, PHR’s director of programs, said in a statement.
“We urge the House to act with similar urgency to pass the companion bill, H.R. 4223,” he said.
PHR has spent a considerable amount of time in the refugee camps in Bangladesh in December and will be returning in February for a similar investigation in the coming weeks.
Venters, who traveled to Bangladesh in December with a team of doctors to document physical and sexual violence against the Rohingya, called the legislation “a critical step toward accountability and making clear that the United States will not tolerate violence against the Rohingya.”
PHR, other rights groups, and the U.N. have expressed concern over an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled the violence and want to voluntarily return.
They have warned against a quick return of the Rohingya, saying that the minority group will continue to face repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
They also argue that some Rohingya who want to return may not have documents proving prior residency because their homes were burned during the crackdown, causing them to flee with few belongings.
Myanmar officials have insisted that immigration officers have records to verify residency claims and that refugee reception centers in northern Rakhine are ready to begin processing the returnees. But they blame the Bangladeshi side for holding up the returns, which were scheduled to begin on Jan. 22.
PHR said it will conduct a follow-up investigation in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in the coming weeks.
The Senate committee’s announcement about the bill came the same day that London-based Amnesty International published new evidence of ongoing violence by the Myanmar military against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state, forcing them to flee.
The organization conducted interviews with 19 Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh in January and who said they had left their communities because of forced starvation, abductions, and looting of their property by Myanmar soldiers.
“Shielded by official denials and lies, and a concerted effort to deny access to independent investigators, Myanmar’s military continues to get away with crimes against humanity,” said Matthew Wells, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International, who was part of the organization’s latest research trip to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, where the refugees live in sprawling displacement camps.
“Myanmar’s security forces are building on entrenched patterns of abuse to silently squeeze out of the country as many of the remaining Rohingya as possible,” he said. “Without more effective international action, this ethnic cleansing campaign will continue its disastrous march.”
Nearly all of the interviewees said they had decided to flee because the military created food shortages by stealing livestock, preventing communities from harvesting rice, and burning local markets, Amnesty International's statement said.
Some of the refugees said soldiers stole money and other valuables and subjected Rohingya women and girls to sexual violence during searches at checkpoints while walking to Bangladesh, it said.
The rights group also said that it had documented three recent incidents of the Myanmar military abducting girls or young women in January.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, the international community’s response to the atrocities against the Rohingya population has been weak and ineffective, failing to grasp the severity of the situation in northern Rakhine state or put sufficient pressure on Myanmar’s military to stop the ethnic cleansing,” Wells said.
The group also called for an arms embargo and targeted sanctions as well as unfettered and sustained humanitarian access throughout northern Rakhine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and seven other nations asked the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to discuss the fate of the Rohingya refugees, Agence France-Presse reported.
The Council’s three permanent members — the U.S, Britain, and France — along with the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Kazakhstan, and Equatorial Guinea requested the meeting which will be held on Feb. 20, during which Filippo Grandi, the U.S.’s high commissioner for refugees, will report on the crisis, AFP said, citing diplomats.
In November, a U.N. General Assembly committee called on Myanmar to end military operations and violence against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine and requested that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appoint a special envoy on Myanmar.