NEARLY A year after the Myanmar military drove about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of their homes in northern Rakhine state , in one of the worst human rights calamities of recent years, the voice of the world’s leading democracy, the United States, is unconscionably muted. Congress and the Trump administration have failed to hold the leaders of Myanmar’s military to account for their intolerable brutality. Stronger measures are needed.
One factor slowing a U.S. response has been sympathy for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor of Myanmar, also known as Burma. She is the de facto head of state, who once symbolized all that is admirable about resisting tyranny. Aung San Suu Kyi has limited powers and does not control the generals . But empathy for her current situation — and sentimentality about her past — must not stand in the way of urgent action to defend the Rohingya, a long-persecuted minority. After a militant group attacked Myanmar security posts, the military responded with a wave of 27 army battalions and three police battalions , a force of about 12,000, a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya civilian population. The Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and remain stuck there in ramshackle refugee camps. If Aung San Suu Kyi had encountered such a tableau of suffering in her earlier role as a champion of the downtrodden, she would have been apalled.
On Capitol Hill, the annual defense policy bill had included sanctions on Myanmar’s military, provisions that were approved 382 to 30 in the House. Similar legislation unanimously cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). But the sanctions were removed from the defense policy bill, expected to be signed Monday by the president, largely due to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) , who out of loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi clings to the notion that Myanmar must not be sanctioned. The voice of Congress in the face of ethnic cleansing has been muffled.
The Trump administration has placed four to six Myanmar military officers on a list for possible sanctions, but the Treasury Department has yet to issue it. It should — soon. While the practical impact may be small, just being named on a U.S. blacklist is bound to discomfit the officers. Meanwhile, the State Department is preparing a landmark report that examines the events that led to the Rohingya exodus. It is extremely important that this report be made public. Separately, an inquiry by the human rights group Fortify Rights recently detailed how the Myanmar military “made extensive and systematic preparations for the commission of mass atrocity crimes” against the Rohingya: They disarmed Rohingya civilians, tore down fences and other structures, and armed non-Rohingya groups, among other things. The group says 22 Myanmar military and police officials should be criminally investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity.
On July 30, Myanmar announced the creation of yet another commission to investigate, which is lame and late. The United States must find its own voice of conscience, and soon.