Tommy Trenchard/Caritas/CAFOD

World News


Congress must hold Burmese Military Accountable for Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya

Since August, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled the Burmese military’s systematic ethnic cleansing campaign. As the violence rages on, victims continue to pour into overcrowded camps in neighboring Bangladesh resulting in a humanitarian crisis. While the world sits on the sidelines, aid agencies struggle to keep up with demands for food, water, and medical assistance.

The United States must act now. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent public condemnation of the ethnic cleansing is a step in the right direction, but more can be done to hold the perpetrators accountable. Representative Eliot Engel and Senator John McCain recently introduced bills the House and Senate that call for targeted sanctions against Burmese military officials and bans U.S. assistance to the Burmese military. Congress should pass this legislation.

Banning top military officials’ access to financial assets and revoking visa privileges will hold General Min Aung Hlaing and senior officers accountable. They must bear responsibility for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. The pending legislation calls for an investigation of accountability for crimes against humanity and genocide, designations that carry legal repercussions for those found responsible. A looming threat of criminal prosecution should further compel the Burmese military to drop its violent campaigns.

Revoking military assistance sends a strong message to the Burmese military that the United States will no longer tolerate its behavior. While formal assistance, including weapons and equipment sales, to Burma’s military is illegal, the United States has worked with the Burmese military through limited military-to-military engagement including exchanges and training programs, workshops on human rights, and visits from senior U.S. military officials. The legislation rightly calls for revoking this assistance until the Burmese military stops the violence and provides credible evidence of reform.

Enacting legislation increases U.S. credibility and leverage to pressure other countries to take stronger action. European Union member states are participating in the arms embargo, and the United Kingdom suspended its military training program in September. The United States, with the support of its European allies, should now pressure China, Russia and other major suppliers of Burma’s military equipment. The United States should seek a UN Security Council resolution calling for multilateral sanctions against senior Burmese military officials and a global arms embargo.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow a vote on an earlier resolution that criticized Burmese de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction, believing that implicating Suu Kyi would harm Burma’s nascent democracy and her ability to govern. Unlike the earlier resolution, the current legislation avoids mention of Suu Kyi’s role and targets only military officials. McConnell was a leader in the imposition of previous sanctions that successfully squeezed Burma’s military authoritarian regime leading to the election of Suu Kyi in 2015. He should allow a vote on the current legislation.

Until the violence stops, it will be impossible for the international community to assess the full extent of the crisis or ensure the safe return of refugees. The United States must step up and take action to end the current crisis and protect the Rohingya minority. Passing legislation that condemns the violence, holds the perpetrators accountable, and provides humanitarian assistance to the refugees is not only right, but necessary to ensure the future safety and security of the Rohingya people.