The Trump administration has a list of between six and nine senior Myanmar officials to sanction over the Rohingya crisis, but the effort has stalled amid internal debates over sanctions’ effectiveness and U.S. leadership, two sources tell ABC News.
The slow reaction by the U.S. after almost a year has angered and upset activists, and has also led to questions within the administration about U.S. leadership on an issue where other Western countries have now taken the lead.
The Treasury Department, which implements sanctions for the U.S. government, is sitting on six to nine officials’ names, according to one source. The other source said that there was “a number” of names, possibly eight.
It's unclear how long they have been sitting on this list.
The move was a turnaround for both Europe and Canada, which along with the U.S., had lifted several sanctions on Myanmar in 2012 to support its transition from a military junta to democratic rule.
But since that transition, which brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to power as Myanmar’s first democratically elected leader, relations have soured again over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority that is mostly Muslim in the country’s northwest Rakhine State.
Once hailed as a hero, Suu Kyi has now been criticized for, at best, inaction and, at worst, supporting the campaign against the Rohingya, a crisis that began nearly a year ago. Some analysts believe that given the military’s power in Myanmar’s young power-sharing government, there is little she can do.
Rohingya have been oppressed for decades, but last August, the Myanmar military began a new campaign to kill and expel them from their homes. Over 700,000 refugees were forced to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they are living in camps, now vulnerable to the summer’s monsoon season.
The United Nations, the United States and others declared it was “ethnic cleansing,” with reports of horrific tactics like burning homes to the ground, murder, rape and torture. Myanmar has denied those accusations and argued that it has conducted a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign against Rohingya militants after there was an attack on military posts last August.
But in the face of the government’s violence, the U.S. has sanctioned only one individual -– Maung Maung Soe, who was the chief of Myanmar’s military’s western command and oversaw the operation against Rohingya.
The administration announced sanctions against him in December as part of the U.S.’s Global Magnitsky sanctions program, which targets human rights abusers and corrupt politicians. When asked by ABC News at the time if other officials would be sanctioned, a senior administration official said, “We don’t talk about future potential designations.”
A team of U.S. investigators has also been on the ground this year with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, conducting interviews and gathering evidence for a possible criminal case against Myanmar, ABC News has reported. And before Maung Maung Soe was sanctioned, the U.S. had taken smaller steps to penalize and warn the government, including halting the lifting of travel sanctions for senior military officials and rescinding invitations to senior officials for U.S.-sponsored events.
But violence against Rohingya continued, and so did the government’s attempts to cover it up, including by arresting two Reuters reporters who were the first to report on a mass grave. Both reporters are still imprisoned.
While the U.S. has debated sanctioning other officials, no action has been taken. With Europe and Canada leading the way with their seven new designations, State Department officials are now infuriated that the U.S. looks like it is lagging behind, one source said.
The debate at Treasury now is over how the Myanmar military, which still holds much of the power in the country, would react and whether sanctions would influence their behavior or isolate them and push Myanmar further into China’s orbit.
The second source declined to comment on internal dynamics, but said that either way, the entire administration is accountable for its inaction.
When the administration announced new Global Magnitsky sanctions on Nicaraguan officials last week, ABC News asked again whether there would be any new Myanmar sanctions. A senior administration official said only, “As a general matter, we also don’t forecast what actions we may take on this program or other programs until we actually take those actions.”