The U.S. House of Representatives condemned the "ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya" on Wednesday, passing a resolution (423-3) by a two-thirds voice vote "calling for an end to the attacks" against the Muslim minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The resolution is the first step in congressional action that could eventually include a stand-alone sanctions bill aimed at putting financial pressure on the Burmese military and providing U.S. economic assistance for the resettlement of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh back to Myanmar.
“This is a moral issue and a national security issue,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, said on the House floor Tuesday. “No one is secure when extremism and instability is growing in this part of the world.”
Hundreds of thousands flee
An estimated 600,000 Rohingya have been displaced in recent months, fleeing into Bangladesh and creating a humanitarian crisis.
“Hundreds have been killed,” Royce said as he described the scope of the crisis. “At least 200 villages have been burned to the ground, landmines have been placed inside Burma’s border with Bangladesh, maiming refugees who are seeking safe haven. There are reports of rapes and all types of violence committed against the Rohingya.”
The bipartisan resolution - co-sponsored by Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley of New York and Republican Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio - calls for “an end to the attacks in and an immediate restoration of humanitarian access to the state of Rakhine in Burma.”
The resolution also calls on Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of Myanmar's government, and the Burmese military to work together to implement humanitarian aid and reconciliation.
"The Burmese military's widespread brutality toward Rohingya civilians over the last few months and its attempts to drive them out of the country are deeply disturbing.” Chabot told VOA in a statement on the passage of the resolution. "That is why Congressman Crowley and I introduced H.Con.Res. 90, to condemn this ethnic cleansing and show the American people’s outrage at these attacks.
"This resolution calls on Burmese authorities to work with the international community to resolve the crisis while also calling on Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson to impose sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses," Chabot added.
Tillerson shifted the U.S. approach to the crisis last month when he deemed the violence against the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, saying, “This violence must stop, this persecution must stop.”
A bipartisan sanctions bill introduced last month by New York Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and by Chabot would end U.S. military ties with Myanmar while imposing harsh sanctions on industries that fund the Burmese military.
If passed, the bill also would reimpose sanctions on the lucrative Burmese gem trade that were lifted last year by then-president Barack Obama in an executive order.
A companion bill in the U.S. Senate is sponsored by Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Todd Young of Indiana, and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Ben Cardin of Maryland.
“If they want to go back to the bad old days when we had all sorts of restrictions on them – economic restrictions, trade restrictions, political restrictions – then we’re forced to go back to those bad old days because if they’re going to perpetuate ethnic cleansing, we don’t want to be complicit,” Engel told VOA in an interview last month.
Chabot told VOA the sanctions bill also provides key economic funding for Rohingya refugees returning to Myanmar.
“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 said.
A source on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told VOA there is strong bipartisan interest in the bill, but that it is still undergoing refinements with outside groups as it collects cosponsors.
With just six working days left in the House legislative calendar and a full congressional agenda that includes funding the government, the bill is highly unlikely to move forward until next year.
But passage of the resolution is a key first step for the U.S. Congress.
“The United States certainly cannot solve every problem in the world,” resolution co-sponsor Crowley said Tuesday. “But there are some things that we can, and that we must do. And imposing sanctions against the perpetrators of atrocities in Burma is one of the things that we must do. Doing so will send an important signal that we are watching, and we are not standing by idly.”