Updated at 5:56 p.m. ET on 2019-07-17
Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugee leaders on Wednesday welcomed a U.S. travel ban on Myanmar’s military chief and three other generals over their alleged roles in a 2017 offensive that killed thousands of stateless Rohingya, but said the American move was not tough enough.
A day earlier U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brig. Gen. Than Oo and Brig. Gen. Aung.
The top American diplomat said they were deemed responsible for atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State that forced more than 740,000 of them to seek shelter at camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
“I think the U.S. government has passed a message to the Myanmar government by imposing a travel ban on the Myanmar military chief and three other top military officials,” Faruk Khan, a Bangladeshi lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, told BenarNews.
But he added: “These human rights violations warrant tougher sanctions. The travel ban is not enough.”
In his announcement on Tuesday, Pompeo said the four Myanmar generals had been designated for their “responsibility for gross human rights violations, including in extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine State, Burma, during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.”
The four and their immediate families could not enter the United States, Pompeo said.
“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. We designated these individuals based on credible information of these commanders’ involvement in gross violations of human rights,” he said.
Burma is the British colonial name for Myanmar, which the United States officially uses.
“The U.S. has been vocal against the human rights violations, especially against women. The Myanmar army perpetrated massive human rights violations of Rohingya women in Rakhine,” said Khan, the Bangladeshi parliamentarian.
‘We want justice’
In January 2017, seventeen of 54 women interviewed by BenarNews at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, months before the mass exodus began that August, said they had been raped by Myanmar security forces before they escaped to Bangladesh.
A 24-year-old refugee in Kutupalong camp said security forces snatched her one night as she was eating dinner and took her to a nearby hill, where she and some other local women were “tortured by turns.”
“Failing to bear the barbaric torture, two women died there. I somehow managed to flee after being raped,” she told BenarNews. “They stripped me, beat my breasts and body; then they did whatever they desired.”
Nur Mohammad, a leader of a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar who fled the violence in Rakhine, said he supported the new sanctions against the generals, but he insisted that tougher action be taken so the four could be put on trial outside of Myanmar.
“The Myanmar government cannot try the Myanmar military. We demand that the Myanmar military chief and other responsible officials must be tried according to international law,” Mohammad told BenarNews.
“We have repeatedly said the Myanmar military and the vigilante Moghs (Buddhists) perpetrated genocide and massive human rights abuses against the Rohingya,” he said, adding, “We want justice.”
Meanwhile, Munshi Faiz Ahmad, chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a government think-tank, questioned whether the sanctions would work. He noted that Myanmar had already been isolated from much of the rest of the world for many years.
“But the travel ban has some token value because this ban demonstrates that the U.S. recognizes that Myanmar army chief and three other officials have committed serious human rights abuses against the Rohingya,” he said.
Myanmar military: ‘This action harms our dignity’
Attacks on guard posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group, on Aug. 25, 2017, unleashed a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in northern Rakhine state.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to refugee camps in and around neighboring Bangladesh. Bilateral repatriation efforts have failed because most Rohingya they are too afraid to return to Myanmar.
The Myanmar government largely denied the military’s involvement in atrocities against the Rohingya and has defended its activities as part of a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against ARSA.
On Wednesday, the Myanmar military denounced the U.S. sanctions targeting its top brass.
The move was an affront to the Myanmar military, but the armed forces in that country would carry on with business as usual, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said.
“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is the organization undertaking the duty to safeguard the state,” he said. “This action harms our dignity.”
“Whether they approve or not, our efforts for building an international standard military force will continue,” he said. “Instead of responding to this action, we will focus on implementing our ongoing work.”
The U.S. announcement occurred on the same day that a team from the International Criminal Court (ICC), headed by Deputy Prosecutor James Kirkpatrick Stewart, arrived in Dhaka to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
The ICC team met on Wednesday with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, Law Minister Anisul Huq and Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque and were to visit Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district on Friday.
On July 4, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked judges to authorize an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity – namely deportation, other inhumane acts and persecution committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which is not an ICC member.
Although the U.S. sanctions are the first against Myanmar’s top military leader, at least two similar bans against others were announced since the crackdown against ARSA.
The first, in December 2017, placed sanctions against Maj. Gen. Maung Soe, who served as head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command during the military operations, which drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border.
The second, in August 2018, placed sanctions against three military and a border guard police commander along with two military units, according to the Washington Post. At the time, Fortify Rights, Amnesty International and other rights advocacy groups said that Min Aung Hlaing needed to be included on any sanctions by the U.S. government.
The U.S. move came almost a year after a fact-finding mission, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, said Min Aung Hlaing and five other generals, including the three listed by Pompeo, should be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and prosecuted for genocide.
“Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” said the report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which cataloged abuses in Rakhine, home to the Rohingya.
“They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them,” the U.N. report said.
This report combines reporting done by BenarNews staff in Bangladesh and Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of Benar.