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'There Must Be Justice': U.S. Sanctions Myanmar Soldiers For Rohingya Killings

A member of the Myanmar security forces stands guard near a military transport helicopter in Rakhine state last September, about a month into the bloody crackdown on the country's Rohingya Muslim population.
AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Myanmar security forces stands guard near a military transport helicopter in Rakhine state last September, about a month into the bloody crackdown on the country's Rohingya Muslim population.

Nearly a year since Myanmar began its bloody crackdown on the Rohingya, driving more than 700,00 members of the Muslim minority group to flee, the U.S. is sanctioning several high-level commanders and units in the country's armed forces.

The Treasury Department announced the penalties Friday, saying they're part of a "strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide scale human suffering."

"Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses," the Treasury's Under Secretary Sigal Mandelker said in a statement announcing the sanctions that also referred to the country by its former name.

"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," she added. "The U.S. government is committed to ensuring that Burmese military units and leaders reckon with and put a stop to these brutal acts."

The penalties name four military and border police commanders: Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing and Thura San Lwin. Two entire units, the 33rd and 99th light infantry divisions, were slapped with sanctions as well. Their U.S. assets have been frozen, and U.S. nationals have been barred from taking part in any transactions with them.

The Trump administration's sanctions were quickly criticized for aiming at the middle tiers of Myanmar's security apparatus and leaving its highest rungs untouched. The official notice also avoided using strong labels such as "genocide" to describe the military's actions, referring only to "serious human rights abuses."

Human rights activists wanted the U.S. to go further in punishing the ringleaders of Myanmar's retaliatory operations. Since Rohingya insurgents attacked government outposts last Aug. 25, the refugees streaming over the border into Bangladesh have told harrowing stories of rape, torture and murder at the hands of the military — a campaign so staggering in scope that the U.S., the United Nations and other international observers have described it as "ethnic cleansing."

"Senior officials in Myanmar implicated in crimes against humanity must be held to account for their roles in the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya women, men and children. Responsibility extends to the highest levels of the chain of command — so too should justice and accountability," Francisco Bencosme of Amnesty International said in a statement responding to the sanctions Friday. "That includes Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in Chief of the Myanmar military."

Late last month, Amnesty International released an extensive report detailing the government crackdown against Rohingya civilians. Cobbling information from 400 interviews, the human rights group says its investigators found proof that Myanmar soldiers have committed nine of the 11 internationally recognized crimes against humanity — "including murder, torture, deportation or forcible transfer, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance, and other inhumane acts, such as forced starvation."

A bipartisan group of senators said on Friday that they also want to see the Trump administration go further.

"While the United States is the largest contributor to the humanitarian response — a reflection of the generosity of the American spirit — the United States government must do more," reads a letter signed by 17 senators and addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The signatories — whose number includes Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — called on Pompeo to send an "unmistakable message" by releasing the State Department's own report on Myanmar atrocities, broadening the sanctions and ensuring a safe return for Rohingya refugees now living in squalid Bangladeshi camps.

And the senators quoted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in describing the "moral imperative" the U.S. bears: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, two Reuters reporters remain on trial for allegedly betraying state secrets by reporting on the military's operation and a mass grave in which troops reportedly dumped 10 Rohingya who had been summarily murdered last year.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain camped across the border in Bangladesh, bearing the lashing rains of monsoon season in dilapidated shelters. Despite the suffering in the driving storms, NPR's Jason Beaubien reportedthat he spoke with many refugees who couldn't bear the thought of returning to a country that had wrought such violence upon them and their loved ones.

One woman offered one such account, describing the crackdown's opening days last year.

"She watched much of her family get killed before her very eyes last August. She says she was raped. She was beaten," Beaubien recalls. "And she told me she would drink a bottle of poison before she will re-cross that border and return to Myanmar."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.