US slaps sanctions on Myanmar army chief over Rohingya abuses
The United States has announced sanctions on Myanmar's military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and three other military leaders due to their role in the "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya minority.
The State Department said on Tuesday it took action after finding credible evidence they were involved in the violence two years ago that led about 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
"With this announcement, the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese military," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a 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 added.
Also sanctioned were Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo and Brigadier General Aung Aung, as well as the families of all four officers.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar refuses to grant the mostly Muslim Rohingya citizenship or basic rights and refers to them as "Bengalis", inferring that the Rohingya are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.
United Nations investigators say the violence warrants the prosecution of top generals for "genocide" and the International Criminal Court has started a preliminary probe.
Pompeo repeated the 2017 finding of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, that the killings amounted to "ethnic cleansing" - while stopping short of using the term genocide.
Pompeo voiced particular outrage that Myanmar in May ordered the release of seven soldiers convicted of killing Rohingya villagers, serving less time than two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 500 days after exposing the deaths.
He called it an "egregious example of the continued and severe lack of accountability for the military and its senior leadership".
The sanctions notably do not affect Aung San Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who has risen to become the country's de-facto civilian ruler.
The Nobel laureate has been criticised over her "indifference" to the atrocities committed by the military against the Rohingya, considered "the most prosecuted minority in the world".
The sanctions are the most visible sign of US disappointment with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, since it launched political reforms in 2011, with the military rulers reconciling with Washington and eventually allowing an elected political leadership.
Matthew Smith, the cofounder and chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, welcomed the sanctions but said the US could do more.
"This is good news if this is the first measure the US will take in addressing genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya people. It's bad news if this is all Secretary Pompeo and the US administration are planning to do. We are hopeful they will do more," Smith told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC.
"The impact [of the sanctions] can be serious. This will flag the responsibility of these individuals for international prosecutors, for example, the International Criminal Court, and it will give pause to business leaders going to Myanmar in doing business with military-owned enterprises."
'Xenophobic and racist attitudes'
Erin Murphy, a former State Department official closely involved in the thaw in US ties with Myanmar, said the ban would affect not so much the generals directly, but their children or grandchildren who want to come to the US as tourists or students.
While saying the travel ban provided a tool to encourage change, she doubted it would change attitudes towards the Rohingya, who are "almost a universally despised population".
"You're talking about changing deeply held xenophobic and racist attitudes and a travel ban alone isn't going to change that," said Murphy, founder and principal of the Inle Advisory Group, which specialises in Myanmar.
The US last year imposed sanctions on more junior Myanmar security officials although the effect was more sweeping, with economic restrictions.
A State Department study released last year described the violence against Rohingya as "extreme, large-scale, widespread and seemingly geared toward both terrorising the population and driving out the Rohingya residents", including widespread rape and the burning of villages.
Doctors Without Borders has estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of the crackdown that was launched in August 2017.
Myanmar's army has denied virtually any wrongdoing and said it was responding to Rohingya armed rebels.