Parties unite to move Myanmar sanctions bill

Bipartisan lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee joined forces Thursday to advance legislation slapping new sanctions on Myanmar’s military regime for its violent purge of ethnic minorities.

The proposal, sponsored by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), is designed to punish Myanmar’s leaders for their long-running campaign of brutality and displacement against the Rohingya, a Muslim group occupying western regions of the state.

Supporters are hoping the new restrictions — including trade, travel and financial sanctions against Myanmar’s top leaders — will check the violence and ultimately lead to war crimes charges against those behind the attacks.

“The Rohingya who have been suffering at the hands of the Burmese military since the horrific attacks in 2017 shouldn’t have to wait for justice any longer,” Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs panel, said in a statement. “There needs to be relief from the violence and suffering. There needs to be accountability for those who have carried out the genocide against the Rohingya and ongoing horrors against other ethnic minorities.”

The unanimous vote of the Foreign Affairs panel sends the proposal to the House floor, where a similar bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the last Congress. The legislation has hit a wall of opposition in the Senate, however, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi — has declined to consider the bill.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was once glorified across the world for her pro-democracy advocacy, has largely defended the military’s conduct amid their purge of the country’s ethnic minorities. Thousands of Muslim Rohingyas were killed since the latest round of violence began in the summer of 2017, and roughly 1 million others have been pushed into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. One of the camps, housing roughly 700,000 people, is the largest refugee camp in the world.

A United Nations report issue last year found widespread abuse of the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s military, including mass killings, gang rapes and other “violations [that] undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” The U.N. labeled the purge a “genocide,” and recommended the perpetrators be tried before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The Trump administration has stopped short of applying that designation. A State Department report released last year found that the military “targeted civilians indiscriminately and often with extreme brutality,” but the agency has declined to label the tragedy a genocide. 

The issue came to light Wednesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during the confirmation hearing of Kelly Knight Craft, President Trump‘s pick to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Pressed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Craft characterized the Rohingya tragedy as “unexcusable” and “ethnic cleansing,” but declined to say it rose to the level of genocide. 

“Senator, this is not a decision for me to make. This is a decision that’s made within the State Department,” said Craft, who’s currently the U.S. ambassador to Canada. “I can assure you that i will be a strong voice on behalf of the Rohingyas.” 

The Engel-Chabot proposal, aside from applying new sanctions on Myanmar’s leaders, would also bar the Pentagon from expanding the U.S. military presence in Myanmar until tangible reforms are adopted, while providing help for investigations into the atrocities, with an eye toward prosecuting war crimes. 

“I hope this bill moves swiftly through the House,” Engel said, “and if it reaches the Senate, I hope that body’s leadership will see the dire need to get this measure across the finish line.”