US lawmakers step up pressure on Burma over Rohingya crisis
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US lawmakers step up pressure on Burma over Rohingya crisis

A GROUP of more than 40 United States lawmakers called upon President Donald Trump’s administration to act against the military of Burma (Myanmar) last week in light of human rights abuses in Rakhine State ahead of his meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Trump reportedly raised the issue of Rohingya Muslims – more than 600,000 of whom have fled into Bangladesh since Aug 25 – in his meeting with UN Secretary General on Friday.

The State Department said in a statement over the weekend that it had donated US$40 million to humanitarian aid efforts in Bangladesh.

In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, a group of Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives called for “meaningful steps” against Burma’s military and others who have committed human rights abuses.

SEE ALSO: UN appeals for more support for Rohingya in ‘arc of misery’

“Burma’s authorities appear to be in denial of what has happened,” stated the letter. “We urge you to do everything possible to ensure protection and security for those trapped inside Burma or willing to return, as well as oppose forcible returns from neighbouring countries.”

“Assuming that the Burmese government will not take these steps without significant international pressure, we would like to work with you to suspend all international military weapons transfers to the Burmese military and to impose strong multilateral sanctions against specific senior Burmese military officials associated with the gross human rights abuses.”

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Tillerson arrives to deliver remarks on Relationship with India for the Next Century at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, US, on Oct 18, 2017. Source: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Tillerson said last Wednesday the US held Burma’s military leadership responsible for its harsh crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority. He nevertheless stopped short of saying whether the United States would take any action against the Tatmadaw military’s leaders.

Washington has worked hard to establish close ties with Burma’s civilian-led government led by Nobel laureate and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of competition from strategic rival China.

“The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia positions itself as diplomatic actor in Rohingya crisis, but to what effect?

“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening,’ said Tillerson, who said the United States was “extraordinarily concerned” by the situation.

A month ago, the president urged “strong and swift action” to end violence against the Rohingya.

Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma in large numbers since late August when Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

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A Rohingya refugee boy carries his belongings at a refugee camp in Palong Khali district, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Oct 22, 2017. Source: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Tillerson said Washington understood Burma had a militancy problem, but the military had to be disciplined and restrained in the way it dealt with this and to allow access to the region “so that we can get a full accounting of the circumstances.”

“Someone, if these reports are true, is going to be held to account for that,” Tillerson said. “And it’s up to the military leadership of Burma to decide, ‘What direction do they want to play in the future of Burma?’”

SEE ALSO: Divided Asean urged to act on Rohingya crisis

Tillerson said Washington saw Burma, as “an important emerging democracy,” but the Rohingya crisis was a test for the power-sharing government.

He said the United States would remain engaged, including ultimately at the United Nations “with the direction this takes.”

The European Union and the US have been considering targeted sanctions against Burma’s military leadership.

Punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals are among a range of options that have been discussed, but they are wary of action that could hurt the wider economy or destabilise already tense ties between Suu Kyi and the army.

Additional reporting by Reuters