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Myanmar Nationalists Look to Stoke Anti-US Anger over Travel Bans against Military

The United States announced sanctions, July 16, 2019, on the Myanmar military's Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders over extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims, barring them from entry to the United States.
The United States announced sanctions, July 16, 2019, on the Myanmar military's Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders over extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims, barring them from entry to the United States.

Local freelance reporter Cape Diamond contributed to this report.

YANGON — Former lieutenant colonel Hla Swe wore camouflage fatigues as he mounted a stage in front of protesters in Myanmar’s main city of Yangon last week to begin an anti-U.S. diatribe.

Amid chants of “Americans, get out!” he lambasted a recent U.S. decision to slap four of Myanmar’s top generals with travel bans for their role in atrocities committed against the country’s Rohingya minority.

“We don’t care about the sanctions, just do it,” he declared before the crowd, which included Buddhist monks and diehard nationalists. “If American troops are coming to the country, it will be worse than Vietnam for them.”

The prospect of a U.S. invasion of Myanmar in the near future may be practically non-existent, but Hla Swe is well-known for employing extreme rhetoric to rile Myanmar’s nationalists.

“We cannot tolerate them sanctioning military leaders,” said Aung Nyi Nyi Soe, one of the protesters and a member of Myanmar’s pro-military opposition party, the USDP. “Our government should call for action… against any outsiders insulting us.”

The rally is part of efforts by the military’s supporters to stoke animosity against the U.S. and other foreign governments in response to growing calls for international action against Myanmar’s generals.

In a report released Monday, a United Nations fact-finding mission called on governments, businesses and consumers to completely sever financial ties with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known locally.

And the mission reiterated an earlier call for top generals, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide for overseeing a vicious 2017 crackdown that killed thousands of Rohingya and sent some 730,000 fleeing to Bangladesh.

The military says its crackdown was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. Several calls from VOA seeking comment from the military on Monday’s report went unanswered.

Myanmar’s civilian-controlled foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday that the establishment of the fact-finding mission “was based on unfounded allegations”.

“The Government of Myanmar categorically rejects the latest report and its conclusions. We regard the report as an action intended to harm the interests of Myanmar and its people,” it added.

Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, a think tank, said the backlash against the U.N.’s report is likely to grow.

“There are more trouble brewing,” he told VOA. “And the rocky relationship with the international community will continue. But whatever ill will there is will not be directed against the U.S. alone.”

Barack Obama’s decision in 2016 to lift most remaining economic sanctions against Myanmar was an important milestone in the thawing of relations between the two countries.

Rights advocates supported the lifting of broad sanctions but decried the decision to remove restrictions against the military and its top cronies, arguing that it would remove a key form of leverage to help bring an end to army abuses.

Monday’s U.N. report identified dozens of local businesses that investigators said had helped to fund the military’s abuses. Some were blacklisted by the U.S. before 2016.

U.S. embassy staff in Yangon were advised to avoid last week’s rally and “exercise caution” if they unexpectedly found them themselves near a protest.

The warning came after the embassy angered nationalists and others by sharing to its Facebook page an image of a piece of environmentalist artwork featuring the Buddha wearing a gas mask.

The post drew hundreds of negative comments, and prompted a prominent anti-Rohingya monk to try to sue the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, for defaming Buddhism.

U Parmaukha’s defamation suit, which also targeted the local artist behind the image and the embassy staffer who posted it, was thrown out by a Yangon court last week.

“I knew the lawsuit was going to be rejected but I would just like people to know that there’s no rule of law,” the monk told VOA.

The embassy removed the post from its Facebook page in response to the criticism, a move which failed to appease Buddhist nationalists while alienating supporters of freedom of expression.

Embassy spokesperson Aryani Manring told VOA “We stand for freedom of expression, and we hope that this art may have stimulated some deep thinking about the serious environmental problem the work was intended to address.”

She added “Our goal is also to promote friendship between the peoples of Myanmar and the United States, and we reiterate our respect for all religions and cultures.”