WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups escalated pressure Friday on the Trump administration to impose sanctions against Myanmar's military over alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
As President Donald Trump set off on his first official visit to Asia, including regional summits to be attended by Myanmar, both the House and Senate introduced legislation to prohibit U.S. military assistance to the Southeast Asian nation. The bills also seek financial and visa restrictions on military and other security force officials implicated in human rights abuses.
Nearly 60 activist groups, including Human Rights Watch, chimed in Friday, supporting targeted sanctions against military officials they say perpetrated crimes against humanity in the crackdown that has burned hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced more than 600,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh since late August.
"Refugees have provided first-hand accounts of unfathomable brutality: soldiers burning infants alive, gang-raping women, shooting villagers fleeing their homes - violations that research by non-governmental organizations has found to be widespread and systematic," the groups said in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
The State Department has already imposed additional restrictions on existing, low-level military ties, and says it is considering sanctions. Tillerson, who is set to visit Myanmar on Nov. 15, is also considering a recommendation from officials to declare that "ethnic cleansing" has taken place — an allegation endorsed by senior U.N. officials but denied by Myanmar authorities.
While it remains uncertain whether the U.S. legislation, introduced in both houses of Congress on Thursday, will become law, it reflects a dramatic, bipartisan shift in sentiment in Washington within a year. Widespread support for easing restrictions to reward the Myanmar military for loosening its five-decade grip on power has been replaced by growing appetite to slap back sanctions.
"It's time to re-impose targeted sanctions against the senior military officials responsible for this brutality to send a clear message: This violence must stop, perpetrators must be held accountable, and there must be meaningful civilian control over Burma's military and security forces." said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, top-ranking Democrat in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said it "would hold accountable the senior military officials responsible for the slaughter and displacement of innocent men, women and children in Burma, and make clear that the United States will not stand for these atrocities."
Both bills further call for a re-imposition of a ban on the lucrative trade in jade and rubies that was among the last restrictions lifted by the Obama administration last year after elections installed a civilian government, albeit one with little control over the military.
The legislation also urges U.S. opposition to funding from international financial institutions for projects in Myanmar linked to military-owned enterprises.