One year after crisis began, US sanctions Myanmar military over Rohingya ethnic cleansing

Human rights activists say sanctions took too long and do not do enough.

August 17, 2018, 12:51 PM

The Trump administration is sanctioning four Myanmar military officials and two military units for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, the Muslim-majority ethnic group that has fled by the hundreds of thousands from a violent campaign into neighboring Bangladesh.

Other than one general sanctioned last December, these are the first commanders and units hit with economic penalties since the crisis started nearly a year ago. While it was a welcome step for human rights groups and activists, they say it took too long and does not do enough.

The sanctions target four commanders who led teams that engaged in human rights abuses – the Border Guard Police, the Military Operations Command, the Bureau of Special Operations, and the 99th Light Infantry Division. In addition, the 99th Division and the 33rd Light Infantry Division were sanctioned as units for their bloody roles.

A Rohingya refugee boy desperate for aid cries as he climbs on a truck distributing aid for a local NGO near the Balukali refugee camp in Bangladesh, Sept. 20, 2017.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In grim detail, the Treasury Department lays out what the men and their units did – mass executions of men and boys, raping and beating women and girls, burning homes down with families trapped inside. They slaughtered thousands – including the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities like the Kachin, Shan, and others.

Myanmar has a long history of violent oppression of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya. But this latest round of violence began on August 25 when Rohingya militants attacked dozens of police posts in northern Rakhine state, according to the Myanmar government, which responded immediately with a violent crackdown, burning villages and killing civilians.

That sparked a flood of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh – now totaling 919,000, according to the latest United Nations estimates.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has denied the allegations, saying it is combating an Islamic terrorist threat.

PHOTO: A Rohingya girl Shafiqa Begum, who spent four days in the open after crossing over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, holds her sister at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Oct. 19, 2017.
A Rohingya girl Shafiqa Begum, who spent four days in the open after crossing over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, holds her sister Sameera, as her brother Sadiq plays with their belongings at Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Oct. 19, 2017.
Dar Yasin/AP

The U.S. has been hesitant to coming down too hard on Myanmar, which is governed by a hybrid military-civilian government. Ruled by a military junta since 1988, Myanmar began a transition to allow civilian rule in 2011, but that power-sharing is still delicate.

Just years since it relaxed sanctions on Myanmar, the U.S. is also concerned about pushing the country back into China's orbit.

While the administration developed a list of six to nine sanctions targets earlier this year, the effort stalled amid internal debates, ABC News was first to report.

Instead, the U.S. was caught flat-footed when the European Union and Canada led the way with their own sanctions on seven Myanmar military officials on June 25, freezing their assets within European and Canadian jurisdictions and banning them from traveling to Europe and doing business with Canada.

In addition to the $299 million in aid the U.S. has provided for Rohingya refugees, the Treasury said Friday it will continue to address the crisis, potentially with more sanctions.

"There must be justice for the victims and those who work to uncover these atrocities, with those responsible held to account for these abhorrent crimes," said Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker in a statement. "The U.S. government is committed to ensuring that Burmese military units and leaders reckon with and put a stop to these brutal acts."

But human rights group say Friday's actions are not enough.

"Responsibility extends to the highest levels of the chain of command – so too should justice and accountability," Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific advocacy manager Francisco Bencosme told ABC News, calling for sanctions on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military.

The State Department is still working on a full investigative report of the Rohingya crisis, including through on-the-ground interviews with survivors in refugee camps. For months now, teams of U.S. investigators have been gathering evidence, as ABC News reported in April. The administration is reportedly debating whether to call the violence "genocide" when it reveals the report sometime soon, according to Politico. But it's unclear when that release may be.

Last November, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined that the violence constituted ethnic cleansing, but the term genocide is stronger, carrying legal ramifications and obligations.