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US Congress Weighs Sanctions on Myanmar Military Over Rohingya Crisis


Rohingya refugees sit on a makeshift boat as they await permission from Border Guard Bangladesh to continue after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, at Shah Porir Dwip near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 9, 2017.

Proposed sanctions against the Myanmar military should move quickly through the U.S. Congress due to strong bipartisan support, lawmakers told VOA.

The Burma Sanctions Bill in the House of Representatives and a companion bill in the Senate would apply economic pressure on military generals with the aim of ending the ongoing violence inflicted on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"This sends a very strong message to the Burmese military that we're not going to tolerate business as usual while they reap economic profits at the same time as they are perpetuating ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people," said Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the crisis last month, Chairman Ed Royce called on Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to be more forceful in condemning the crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Danang, Vietnam, Nov. 9, 2017.
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Danang, Vietnam, Nov. 9, 2017.

"Those responsible for these atrocities must face justice. She and the military generals must rise to this challenge," Royce said. "This is ethnic cleansing."

Engel said it is important for Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out about the crisis, "but we also have to take it in the context where her hands are tied because she's not able to do things because of the way the constitution was written."

A spokesman for Myanmar's leader told the Reuters news service, "We need internal stability to improve the country's economy. Imposing international sanctions directly affects the people in travel and in business investments, and there are many bad consequences."

The House bill's Republican co-sponsor told VOA the sanctions are meant to give Aung San Suu Kyi more leverage with the military.

"We would be able to work with her perhaps to relieve sanctions once in place if the military does reform itself and does certainly cease the hostilities and the atrocities that have occurred," said Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

If passed, the legislation would stop U.S. military cooperation with Myanmar in training and regional exercises, as well as reimposing bans on the country's lucrative gem trade that then-U.S. President Barack Obama lifted by executive order last year.

A group of Rohingya refugees, who fled last night from Myanmar by boat, walks toward a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 9, 2017.
A group of Rohingya refugees, who fled last night from Myanmar by boat, walks toward a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 9, 2017.

If hostilities do stop, the bill also provides economic assistance to foster development in Myanmar and encourage the return of Rohingya.

"The goal here is to get those who have been displaced and in general have gone to Bangladesh to allow them to return to Burma to return to their homes, although a lot of those homes have been burned to the ground by the military, so there's an awful lot of economic development that's going to be necessary," Chabot told VOA.

Senate support

The Senate version of the sanctions bill is co-sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Ben Cardin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a longtime supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, dating back to her time under house arrest.

McConnell told reporters in September that he does not support a congressional resolution calling on Aung San Suu Kyi to be more forceful in condemning the crisis.

WATCH: US Congress Weighs Tough Sanctions on Burmese Military for Rohingya Crisis

"I think she's the greatest hope that we have to move Burma from where it has been, a military dictatorship, to where I hope it's going," McConnell said.

Even with time running short for Rohingya, the lobbyists who have mounted years of effort on their behalf are hopeful.

"This is one issue where everybody across the political spectrum comes together in support of human rights in Burma," said Simon Billenness, executive director of the International Rohingya Campaign.

"We think that bodes very well for the progress of this bill and getting it to the president's desk."

Engel said he hopes to see the bills pass Congress by the end of this year.

"There's no reason why it shouldn't happen — what's happening with the Rohingya is documented; it's not as if we have a question about it; we know the military are the perpetrators of it and the United States cannot just do business as usual," he said.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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