US slaps sanctions on Myanmar army chief over Rohingya abuses

The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions on Myanmar’s military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders due to their role in the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya minority.

Rohingya BangladeshUN investigators say the violence warrants the prosecution of top generals for genocide Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

The State Department said it took action against army chief Min Aung Hlaing and three others after finding credible evidence they were involved in the violence two years ago that led about 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

“With this announcement, the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese military,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

A brutal military crackdown forced about 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

“We remain concerned that the Burmese government has taken no actions to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, and there are continued reports of the Burmese military committing human rights violations and abuses throughout the country,” he said in a statement.

Also sanctioned were Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo and Brigadier General Aung Aung as well as the families of all four officers.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar refuses to grant the mostly Muslim Rohingya citizenship or basic rights and refers to them as “Bengalis,” inferring that the Rohingya are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.

UN investigators say the violence warrants the prosecution of top generals for “genocide” and the International Criminal Court has started a preliminary probe.

Pompeo, issuing a statement during a major meeting at the State Department on religious freedom, repeated the 2017 finding of his predecessor Rex Tillerson that the killings amounted to “ethnic cleansing” – while stopping short of using the term genocide.

The sanctions notably do not impact Aung San Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who has risen to become the country’s de-facto civilian ruler.

The Nobel laureate has been criticised over her “indifference” to the atrocities committed by the military against the Rohingya, considered “the most prosecuted minority in the world”.

The sanctions are the most visible sign of US disappointment with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, since it launched political reforms in 2011, with the military rulers reconciling with Washington and eventually allowing an elected political leadership.

‘Xenophobic and racist attitudes’

Erin Murphy, a former State Department official closely involved in the thaw in US ties with Myanmar, said the ban would affect not so much the generals directly but their children or grandchildren who want to come to the US as tourists or students.

While saying the travel ban provided a tool to encourage change, she doubted it would change attitudes toward the Rohingya, who are “almost a universally despised population.”

“You’re talking about changing deeply held xenophobic and racist attitudes and a travel ban alone isn’t going to change that,” said Murphy, founder and principal of the Inle Advisory Group, which specialises in Myanmar.

You’re talking about changing deeply held xenophobic and racist attitudes and a travel ban alone isn’t going to change that.

Erin Murphy, a Myanmar expert

“You need a lot more tools – both punitive and positive reinforcement – to start to tackle what is a very complex and difficult issue,” she said.

The US last year imposed sanctions on more junior Myanmar security officials although the impact was more sweeping, with economic restrictions.

A State Department study released last year described the violence against Rohingya as “extreme, large-scale, widespread and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” including widespread rape and the burning of villages.

Doctors Without Borders has estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the first month of the crackdown that was launched in August 2017.

Myanmar’s army has denied virtually any wrongdoing and said it was responding to Rohingya armed rebels.

Pompeo voiced particular outrage that Myanmar in May ordered the release of seven soldiers convicted of killing Rohingya villagers, serving less time than two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 500 days after exposing the deaths.

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