Rohingya Muslim refugee women with their children wait at a nutrition center to collect the diet for their children at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Jan. 23, 2018.
Rohingya Muslim refugee women with their children wait at a nutrition center to collect the diet for their children at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Jan. 23, 2018.

CAPITOL HILL - A bipartisan group of U.S. senators moved to confront Myanmar over ethnic cleansing on Wednesday, with one Democrat accusing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of holding up action on the Rohingya crisis because of his ties to the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The problem comes down to one specific issue — the relationship and friendship between Senator McConnell and Aung San Suu Kyi,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois told VOA. “Time and again when we’ve tried to tell the Rohingya story, the atrocities that are occurring to these people at the hands of the Myanmar military and suggest the need for leadership in Myanmar to stop it, there’s been an effort by Senator McConnell and others to stop the conversation.”

For more than two decades, McConnell was a prime sponsor of numerous sanctions measures aimed at the military junta which finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and permitted elections won by her party in 2015.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, left, talks as Myanm
FILE - U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, left, talks as then-Myanmar pro-democracy leader in opposition Aung San Suu Kyi listens during a press conference after their meeting at her home in Yangon, Myanmar, Jan. 16, 2012.

McConnell “felt and we all felt years ago that she [Aung San Suu Kyi] showed extraordinary courage,” Durbin said, “but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore what’s happening today in her country and the need for her leadership.”

McConnell 'deeply troubled'

Voice of America reached out to the Republican leader’s communications director, David Popp, for comment and was referred to a statement from last September in which McConnell said he was “deeply troubled by the humanitarian situation along the Burmese-Bangladeshi border” but said that “publicly condemning Aun San Suu Kyi — the best hope for democratic reform in Burma — is not constructive.”

Hours earlier, Durbin and 14 other senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida as well as Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California, introduced a Senate resolution condemning “the violence and displacement inflicted on Burma’s Rohingya and other ethnic minorities” and calling for “an immediate halt to all hostilities by Burmese authorities.” 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., followed by Sen. Bob Men
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, followed by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, walks in the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 18, 2018.

The resolution seeks “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” for Rohingya refugees, who should “enjoy equal rights with others in Burma, including the restoration or granting of full citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to basic services.”

'The greatest hope'

The resolution also urges the United Nations “to consider the feasibility of Bangladesh’s proposal for a ‘safe zone’ or for a peacekeeping mission to protect and defend vulnerable communities under international supervision.” In addition, it calls for the release of two Reuters journalists arrested and charged with violating the country’s Official Secrets Act.

McConnell had declined to support an similar resolution in September, which demanded that Aung San Suu Kyi do more to protect the Rohingyas. “I don’t favor a resolution going after her,” he said at that time. “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.”

Amid Capitol Hill’s renewed focus on the Rohingya crisis, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations quit a Myanmar government advisory board on the country’s troubled Rakhine State, decrying the panel as “a cheerleading squad for government policy.”

During an interview with the Associated Press, For
During an interview with the Associated Press, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he has resigned from an advisory panel trying to tackle the massive Rohingya refugee crisis.

Absence of 'moral leadership'

In a statement Wednesday, Ambassador Bill Richardson, who also served as governor of New Mexico, described himself as a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi but accused her of an absence of “moral leadership” on the refugee crisis and of disparaging “the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community.”

Richardson added, “Without the commitment and moral leadership needed from the top, my engagement on the Advisory Board is no longer tenable.”

Neither Aung San Suu Kyi nor her spokesman responded to questions for comment.

Bipartisan outrage building

In Washington, bipartisan outrage over the refugee crisis has been building to a boiling point among lawmakers.

“Since August, more than 650,000 innocent men, women and children have been forced to flee a campaign of unspeakable violence that the United Nations has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” McCain said in a statement. “Many Rohingya believe their return home will be met with more violence. These displaced families deserve to have confidence that their return will be safe, voluntary and dignified. The United States and the international community should stand for nothing less,” added McCain.

“It is a most horrific circumstance,” Durbin told VOA. “When you go to a country and you say the word ‘Rohingya’ and the people of Myanmar stop to correct you, saying, 'There is no such thing — you can’t use that term,’ they deny, literally, the existence of the people who are the victims.”