US sanctions Myanmar top brass over 'ethnic cleansing'

Military chief and three generals hit with travel bans over atrocities against Rohingya
US sanctions Myanmar top brass over 'ethnic cleansing'

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a religious freedom summit on July 16 in Washington. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

The United States has imposed travel bans on Myanmar’s military chief and three top generals over their role in "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and other atrocities.

Those targeted are commmander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Soe Win as well as two other generals and their immediate family members. None of them will be allowed to enter the United States.

The U.S. Department of State noted that the punitive action was over their responsibility for "gross human rights violations" including in relation to extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine during a crackdown on Rohingya.

"With this announcement, the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese (Myanmar) military," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a July 16 statement.

"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 also specified that Min Aung Hlaing had ordered the release of soldiers convicted of extrajudicial killings at Inn Dinn in Rakhine.

Evidence has been produced that in September 2017 soldiers detained 10 men in the village and summarily executed them.

Pompeo added in his statement that the Department of State focuses on actions that could change behavior and promote accountability in places where there are serious rights violations. "We believe this action is one step toward achieving these goals," Pompeo said.

Pompeo issued the statement during a major meeting at the State Department on religious freedom and reiterated a 2017 assessment by his predecessor Rex Tillerson that the killings in Myanmar amount to ethnic cleansing while avoiding use of the word "genocide."

Matthew Smith, chief executive of an activist group called Fortify Rights, said the move was "new and significant" but still not an adequate response to genocide.

He called on the U.S. to do more, including by sanctioning military-owned enterprises that effectively financed crimes against Rohingya. "Any failure to ensure accountability will send a dangerous message not only to Myanmar but globally," Smith told ucanews.com.

Khin Zaw Win, director of Myanmar-based think tank called the Tampadipa Institute, said the travel bans signaled that the U.S. and other Western countries could further ramp up pressure on Myanmar's military.

Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in the commercial hub of Yangon, said on Twitter that while symbolic, the fact that only travel bans had been imposed meant there would be a limited impact.

Financial sanctions would be more effective in hurting the military as an institution as well as damaging major military-owned business conglomerates, said Horsey, who is a former senior United Nations official in Myanmar.

In August 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department targeted four security force officials and the Myanmar Army’s 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions with sanctions.

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A U.N. fact-finding mission found that the military committed four of the five acts constituting genocide against Rohingya. It said Min Aung Hlaing and five other senior generals should be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine due to a bloody crackdown by Myanmar's military that started in August 2017 following border post attacks by Rohingya militants.

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