The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on a Myanmar general who led the military’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country’s violence-ridden northern Rakhine state.
Major General Maung Maung Soe, head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command during the military operation that has now driven more than 650,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, is one of 52 people and entities that the U.S. has sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for alleged human rights violations and corruption.
He is the first high-level military officer to be named in the sanctions for overseeing the campaign of atrocities against the Rohingya.
Passed in 2016, the act imposes sanctions that freeze the assets that individuals or entities hold in the U.S., prevent them from using American financial institutions, and forbid Americans from doing business with them. The act is based on a law passed in 2012 designed to punish Russian officials who violated human rights or engaged in graft.
The U.S., United Nations, and rights groups have said that the atrocities the Myanmar military has committed against the Rohingya, including summary executions, the rape of Rohingya women and girls, killing of children, and arson, amount to ethnic cleansing.
“The United States government examined credible evidence of Maung Maung Soe’s activities, including allegations against Burmese security forces of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrest as well as the widespread burning of villages,” said a statement issued by the U.S. Treasury Department whose Office of Foreign Assets Control administers and enforces sanctions programs.
The U.S. has already banned top Myanmar military officers involved in the crackdown from participating in exchanges, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the country is looking at others for possible inclusion on the sanctions list.
“Today, the United States is taking a strong stand against human rights abuse and corruption globally by shutting these bad actors out of the U.S. financial system,” said Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin in the statement issued by the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Treasury is freezing their assets and publicly denouncing the egregious acts they’ve committed, sending a message that there is a steep price to pay for their misdeeds,” he said.
“At the direction of President [Donald] Trump, Treasury and our interagency partners will continue to take decisive and impactful actions to hold accountable those who abuse human rights, perpetrate corruption, and undermine American ideals,” Mnuchin said.
‘Others must be sanctioned’
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY) lauded the decision to sanction Maung Maung Soe, but said others responsible for atrocities committed against the Rohingya must be added to the list as well.
“I welcome the decision to add Maung Maung Soe to the Global Magnitsky list,” he said in a statement issued Thursday. “He should clearly be sanctioned for his role in committing atrocities against the Rohingya.”
“However, with 6,000 dead and thousands more raped, beaten, and displaced, it is clear Maung Maung Soe has not acted alone,” Crowley said. “The other military officials involved in the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya must be sanctioned for their roles in this genocide. The United States has a moral obligation to act.”
New York-based American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a New York-based organization dedicated to human rights and poverty eradication around the world, also welcomed the new sanctions but insisted that the U.S. must do more to stop attacks against the Rohingya and achieve justice for them.
“Sanctioning Maung Maung Soe, the former western commander responsible for the military in the Rakhine state, is a small but crucial first step in holding these perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya people accountable, and sending the clear message that the United States is serious about using diplomacy to promote the safety and dignity of the Rohingya people,” said Robert Bank, president and chief executive officers of AJWS, in a statement.
“Additional sanctions should be imposed on other military actors who are guilty of perpetrating this horrific violence — in particular Burmese military commander [Senior] General Ming Aung Hlaing — and businesses owned by the military that finance its operations,” he said.
Nyan Win, spokesman for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said the sanctions will have a detrimental effect on the country’s ongoing transition to democracy under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“U.S. sanctions on Myanmar can hurt the relationship between Myanmar and the U.S. but may not amount to that much,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They will definitely harm Myanmar’s path to democracy, but we have to wait and see how serious it will be.”
The Myanmar government and army have consistently denied allegations of human rights violations and justified the military operations in northern Rakhine as a response to deadly attacks on police outposts by Rohingya militants in late August.
Satellite images, survivor testimony
Aung San Suu Kyi has come under heavy fire by the international community first for not speaking up about the crisis, and then for not doing anything to stop the military’s slaughter in northern Rakhine.
Min Aung Hlaing, who met with Tillerson in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in mid-November to discuss the situation in volatile Rakhine state, has supported the findings of a military investigation team that determined that soldiers had conducted the “security operations” in accordance with their duty assignments and the law, and had not used excessive force.
A statement issued on Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page on Nov. 13 also said that all subsequent clashes between security forces and Muslim militants occurred between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, the date on which the military operation ended.
Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh and rights groups, however, contend that attacks by security forces and Buddhist mobs had still occurred after that date.
Right groups have also issued reports with satellite images of burned villages and testimonies by Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh who survived the massacre.
Earlier this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued satellite images showing 40 Rohingya villages destroyed by fire in northern Rakhine state since October and November, while Myanmar and Bangladeshi officials were discussing a plan to repatriate refugees.
The identification of 40 new burned villages increased to 354 the total number of Rohingya communities partially or fully destroyed by the violence since Aug. 25, HRW said.
The Geneva-based international aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a report last week that said at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed during the first month the crackdown that began in late August, based on interviews with Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh marking the highest death toll given to date.
Safe for repatriation
The sanctions come as Myanmar is preparing to accept back Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh under a repatriation deal the two nations signed on Nov. 23.
The agreement allows refugees to return voluntarily to Myanmar if they can prove prior residency and show that they left after Oct. 9, 2016, when another military crackdown in response to smaller-scale attacks by Muslim militants drove out tens of thousands of Rohingya.
Though Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, has said that repatriations will get underway on Jan. 22, rights groups have argued that many Rohingya will not want to return because they have lost their homes and farmland.
The groups also point out that the Rohingya will continue to face repression and discrimination in Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
On Friday, however, Win Myat Aye told reporters at his ministry in the capital Naypyidaw that conditions in northern Rakhine state are safe enough for the refugees to return.
“More security guards have been deployed, and the security level has been raised in the Maungdaw area,” he said, referring to the township in northern Rakhine that was the focal point of the crackdown.
The United Nations has cautioned that the repatriation plan must not be carried out in haste and that its refugee agency (UNHCR) should be involved.
The Myanmar government first will resettle Hindu residents driven from their villages by Muslim militants during the crackdown before it begins repatriating the Rohingya.
Reported by Thinn Thiri and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.