Under pressure from Canada and the European Union, the Myanmar military on Monday dismissed a general who is alleged to have led a brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims last year. It was an unexpected move, one that suggests the military may be prepared to accept some measure of accountability for the crisis.
Even as it announced the firing of Major Gen. Maung Maung Soe, however, the military leadership stopped short of blaming him for the operations. The general, it said, displayed “weakness” in the face of militant attacks on police outposts in the country’s western Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017, according to a statement from the office of the commander in chief of defense services, Min Aung Hlaing, that was posted on Facebook.
The decision came shortly after the E.U. and Canada announced Monday the imposition of sanctions against Maung Maung Soe and six other military and police officers in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The seven — five army generals, a border guard general and a police commander — face asset freezes and a travel ban in the E.U. and Canada. Canada previously sanctioned Maung Maung Soe in February under a different act. The Myanmar military statement made no mention of the sanctions.
The United States added the general to its own sanctions list in December. He is the only military official to be punished by the U.S. government in the wake of the brutal campaign that sent some 700,000 predominantly Rohingya Muslims fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh, in what the United Nations, the United States and others have termed ethnic cleansing.
Another commander, Lt. Gen. Aung Kyaw Zaw, who was also sanctioned by the E.U. and Canada on Monday, was allowed to resign from his position on May 22 because of poor health, the statement from the commander in chief’s office said.
Until the end of last year, Aung Kyaw Zaw was the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 3, overseeing the army’s Western Command, which operates in Rakhine, the E.U. said. Maung Maung Soe led the Western Command until November.
Both men were responsible for “atrocities and serious human rights violations committed against Rohingya population in Rakhine State,” the E.U. said. “These include unlawful killings, sexual violence and systematic burning of Rohingya houses and buildings.”
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement that “Canada and the international community cannot be silent. This is ethnic cleansing. These are crimes against humanity.”
The U.S. Treasury Department similarly found “credible evidence” that Maung Maung Soe is responsible for the mass killings and arson attacks that happened under his command. When he was sanctioned by the United States last December, a spokesman for Myanmar’s civilian government said the decision was without evidence and based on unreliable accusations.
The U.S. government — which, according to the State Department, “strongly supports” the move by the E.U. and Canada — is considering sanctions on other people it believes are responsible for the campaign against the Rohingya. There are up to eight individuals being considered for the Treasury blacklist, according to Senate staff, as pressure on Myanmar’s military intensifies nearly a year after the original attacks took place.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department said that it does not “telegraph sanctions or comment on investigations or prospective actions.”
According to the statement from the commander in chief’s office, Maung Maung Soe failed to adequately respond to “terrorist attacks” launched in October 2016 and August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that first emerged two years ago claiming to fight on behalf of the marginalized Rohingya.
The statement noted that the military did not find any fault with the general as he carried out his normal duties but that during the attacks he displayed “shortcomings in timely response to early warnings of the use of force and lawless acts” by ARSA.
The military has maintained that what it calls “clearance operations” were a legitimate response to the August attacks. This narrative has been largely embraced by the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and an overwhelming number of Myanmar people. The Rohingya are deeply despised within Myanmar, where they are viewed primarily as illegal immigrants. The campaign bolstered the popularity of the military, which stepped back from direct rule of the country in 2011.
Human rights groups are advocating for more sanctions coupled with action by the International Criminal Court to end long-running impunity for Myanmar’s military. The court last week gave Myanmar until July 27 to respond to a prosecution request that it consider hearing the case of alleged deportations of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
“These resignations — willful or coerced — do not represent genuine accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by the soldiers and security forces commanded by Maung Maung Soe or Aung Kyaw Zaw, for that matter,” said Richard Weir, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“Moreover, there has been no admission that these individuals bear responsibility for the atrocities committed by the troops below them, by acts of omission or direct orders,” Weir said. “The victims of these atrocities deserve answers and they deserve some measure of justice. They deserve to have these men held accountable, not a cushy retirement.”