Pressure over Burma as Trump, Tillerson leave on Asia tour
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Pressure over Burma as Trump, Tillerson leave on Asia tour

UNITED STATES lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill that would impose targeted sanctions and travel bans on military officials from Burma (Myanmar) over treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State.

Introduced the day before Republican Donald Trump leaves on his first trip to Asia as president and signalling the strongest attempt to date for Washington to deal with the Rohingya crisis, the legislation would reimpose some sanctions lifted last year as Burma returned to democracy.

The bill would bar the US from supplying most assistance to the country’s military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya are held accountable. It does not, however, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who still enjoys strong support among some US officials.

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Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at Sittwe airport in the state of Rakhine November 2, 2017. Source: Reuters

Congressional aides nevertheless said it is intended to underscore a strong desire among many members of Congress for Suu Kyi to do more to help the Rohingya.

More than 607,000 refugees have fled Burma into Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh since Aug 25, when Rohingya militants launched attacks on Burmese security forces sparking so-called “clearing operations” across the Rakhine.

Burma’s Tatmadaw army has been accused of arson, extrajudicial killings and rape during what the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The legislation is sponsored by lawmakers including the Republican Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, and Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“This bill will allow Congress to strengthen the president’s hand by making it clear to Burmese officials that there will be consequences for their crimes against humanity,” Cardin said in a statement.

Among other things, it re-imposes a ban on jade and rubies from Burma and requires a report on which individuals should be subjected to sanctions, and instructs the US Treasury Department not to support international financial assistance programs that partner with enterprises owned by the Burmese military.


Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. Source: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

SEE ALSO: UN Refugee chief urges Security Council to act on Rohingya crisis

A companion bill is also being introduced in the House of Representatives. That measure is also bipartisan, led by Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Republican Representative Steve Chabot, another foreign affairs panel member.

Members of Congress have been clamouring for a strong response to the plight of the Rohingya, and the Trump administration has been weighing labelling their treatment “ethnic cleansing”.

The State Department announced on Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would accompany Trump on his trip to Asia, and also travel to Burma.

On November 15, Tillerson will travel to the capital Naypyitaw where he “will meet and consult with senior leaders and officials on actions to address the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and US support for Burma’s democratic transition.”

Additional reporting from Reuters.