The Trump administration has banned senior military officials in Myanmar from traveling to the United States for what it calls “gross violations of human rights” and “atrocities” against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
A government crackdown in the country has prompted international condemnation and driven more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, a number that continues to rise amid ongoing violence.
The measures target the Myanmar government’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing; deputy commander in chief, Soe Win; and two brigadier generals, Than Oo and Aung Aung. U.S. officials said that no other government in the world has taken public action against military leaders in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
“We designated these individuals based on credible information of these commanders’ involvement in gross violations of human rights,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “We remain concerned that the Burmese government has taken no actions to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, and there are continued reports of the Burmese military committing human rights violations and abuses throughout the country.”
In the months before the State Department decision, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, consulted with senior members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, ethnic leaders and prominent activists on the efficacy of sanctions, according to a person familiar with the meetings. The person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said Marciel and other U.S. officials sought to gather feedback on the practical effect the sanctions would have on the military leader.
A U.N. report called for Myanmar generals to be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes.
Human rights groups have been pushing for a strong response against Myanmar military leaders, including financial sanctions, for the past few years. Some believed an opportunity for a strong U.S. response was missed last year when the State Department considered denouncing Myanmar for crimes against humanity but ultimately did not.
A piece of legislation known as the JADE Act, passed more than a decade ago, also gives the United States the authority to block Myanmar generals from visiting, but that act does not name specific individuals.
Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International USA, said the move was largely a symbolic one, as it publicly names and shames the generals but stops short of full accountability. Groups like his have pushed for coordinated financial sanctions against the Myanmar military.
“Two years after some of the most heinous crimes that have ever been committed, if all the U.S. can do is a symbolic gesture, then it is pretty disappointing and still falls short,” he said.
The U.S. Treasury Department in August imposed sanctions on three Myanmar military commanders, a border guard police commander and military units who directly led the crackdown against the Rohingya. But it has so far declined to take action against Min Aung Hlaing, who holds significant political sway in the country. He leads the military, which controls a quarter of Myanmar's parliament, and three key ministries in the country.
A senior U.S. official said that while the Treasury Department was weighing its options against the generals, the State Department went ahead with the travel ban because it could act through its own authorizations provided by Congress.
Pompeo, in his statement, said there has been a “severe lack of accountability for the military and its senior leadership,” particularly regarding the commander in chief's decision to release soldiers convicted of extrajudicial killings at Inn Din.
“The Commander-in-Chief released these criminals after only months in prison, while the journalists who told the world about the killings in Inn Din were jailed for more than 500 days,” Pompeo said.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo exposed the mass execution of 10 Rohingya men in the Rakhine state town of Inn Din during the August 2017 crackdown. They were arrested, charged and found guilty of violating a colonial-era secrets act, before being freed in a May prisoner amnesty.
Facebook kicked Min Aung Hlaing and other generals off its platform in August to “prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” it said. The social media giant was under significant pressure at the time to act on charges that it had helped fan the flames of hate in Myanmar and created fertile ground for the military’s operation.
After initially studying law at university in Yangon, Min Aung Hlaing entered the Defense Services Academy and graduated in 1977. Over the next three decades he advanced through the military ranks and was named senior general in 2013. He fills the roles of military commander and statesman, meeting with diplomats and world leaders.
In explaining why the decision was being taken now, a U.S. official said the move was “complicated” and required “evidence.”
Mahtani and McLaughlin reported from Hong Kong.