Shadow Government

Myanmar’s Atrocities Demand New Sanctions

Rep. Eliot Engel’s sanctions legislation offers the right response to the Myanmar military’s campaign of murder and displacement.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, on May 22. (That Aung/AFP/Getty Images)
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, on May 22. (That Aung/AFP/Getty Images)

In response to the systematic campaign of murder and rape leading to the forced displacement of some 700,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel is offering a bill to reimpose U.S. sanctions on the country’s military leaders. With more than 70 bipartisan co-sponsors, it should be an easy lift, but friends of Myanmar, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are nervous about undermining Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most powerful civilian ruler. Ignoring the role of the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, in committing atrocities will not help Aung San Suu Kyi or the future of the country, which holds tremendous promise.

Just five years ago, I was on the side of the optimists. I testified before Congress about the value of careful re-engagement between the U.S. military and its counterparts in Myanmar. The idea was to limit such engagement to issues of human rights, accountability, and civilian control of the military, but we would build relationships. With decades of brutal military rule giving way to reform and democratization, I considered it diplomatic malpractice to shun the military even as it led the transition.

What I said then remains true: “The military in Burma remains critical to the ultimate success of the reform efforts and a full transition to democracy.” In other words, the Tatmadaw started this reform and could end it. Engagement would be key, but if the generals went the wrong direction, the U.S. government could re-evaluate.

The time for that re-evaluation has already passed. The government in Myanmar has gone to great lengths to deny atrocities. It keeps international organizations and human rights groups from visiting Rakhine state and detains journalists for reporting what they see. It is holding Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo after an apparent setup because they had photographic evidence of villagers being lined up and executed. (Full disclosure: Wa Lone spent a week visiting with my team at the Center for American Progress in 2015.)

With the mostly Muslim Rohingya decimated, the military has ramped up a campaign against the mainly Christian Kachin Independence Army, one of the armed groups that did not join a nationwide cease-fire in 2015. Civilian casualties and reports of brutality are widespread here as well.

Military leaders in Myanmar claim they are merely countering violent terrorists, justifying the offensive against the Rohingya as a response to a deadly attack by a Rohingya militant group on a police outpost in August 2017. Calling the attack terrorism, the Tatmadaw proceeded with one of the most disproportionate military responses in history and created a massive humanitarian crisis. This pattern of extreme overreaction by the Tatmadaw to provocations by militant groups provides political cover. It is followed with blanket denials of atrocities by Tatmadaw forces regardless of the evidence.

Old-school oppression cannot coexist forever with long-term reform. The military led the opening that has allowed Myanmar to undergo a stunning and positive transition. Just five years ago, you could not use a credit card or ATM and needed to change money on street corners, where only crisp $100 bills were accepted. The country had no free press. Now, civil society and businesses are thriving.

Given such progress, and the benefit of the national cease-fire affecting many militant groups, the world should not seek to once again isolate Myanmar. Instead, very targeted and better-managed sanctions should hit the finances and the freedoms of those leaders most responsible for the violence while allowing more economic cooperation with businesses that meet standards of transparency.

Engel’s bill, which is similar to one Sen. John McCain has offered, achieves this balance. It allows for financial and travel sanctions against persons directly implicated in the violence against civilians, calls for the State Department to report to Congress on whether the violence in Rakhine state amounted to crimes against humanity, narrows military engagement, and calls on the civilian government to do what it can, such as supporting the return of the displaced and allowing citizenship for the Rohingya people. The sanctions require a presidential determination and can be waived, so they are a signal first, not an immediate hammer. They would not freeze economic cooperation.

Coupled with a policy review on ways to energize U.S. investment in Myanmar even while penalizing some military leaders, these sanctions could encourage positive steps that we know are possible. The Tatmadaw has admitted that soldiers executed prisoners and has meted out some punishment. And the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments agreed in January on a time frame for resettlement. These will be empty gestures if not followed by a significant change in policy by Myanmar, for which McCain and Engel have called.

When I took over as the Defense Department official responsible for policy stretching from India to New Zealand, I never expected Myanmar to cross my desk. It had been a pariah and despite early steps toward reform was expected to stay that way. But the fast pace of change led to a welcoming embrace from the Obama administration, which included a presidential visit. This was the right approach, but it was not intended to be a one-way street.

“Burma’s progress is almost certain to be bumpy, with steps forward and backward,” I testified in 2013. While I expected cease-fire violations and sporadic violence, I did not think those bumps would include ethnic cleansing. I expected to re-evaluate military engagement for far lesser transgressions. Beyond the violence on the Rohingya people, the situation has placed extreme stress on Bangladesh. In this sense, the Tatmadaw’s actions pose a threat to international peace and security and should be treated as such. The recent U.N. Security Council visit to Myanmar should lead to international action to encourage Myanmar to bring the Rohingya back with dignity.

Myanmar can succeed only if it truly makes peace with the many ethnic and religious communities within its borders. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself said in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities, and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union.” She may now walk an impossible tightrope in Myanmar as a civilian leader with no constitutional authority over the military. Indeed, the Tatmadaw is popular for its actions against minorities, especially the Rohingya. The United States, however, does not share this challenge and will help Aung San Suu Kyi by acting in line with universal values.

Allowing the kinds of atrocities perpetrated since 2017 to go unnoticed will not help Myanmar thrive and will not help Aung San Suu Kyi live up to the expectations she embodies for so many in her country and around the world. It also will not help the Tatmadaw eventually develop into a modern and respected national military.

This week, Engel is trying to hitch his Myanmar sanctions legislation to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. Leadership in both chambers of Congress should support this move and ensure President Donald Trump signs the legislation. Our own humanity, U.S. strategic interests, and the people of Myanmar deserve no less.

Vikram J. Singh is senior advisor for national security, democracy, and technology at the Center for American Progress. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia from 2012 to 2014.

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