In-Depth: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to impose sanctions on the Burmese military in response to the genocide of the Rohingya people:
“Since August of 2017, the Burmese military has inflicted horrific violence against the Rohingya in Burma's Rakhine State, and today is using the same tactics against the Kachin and other ethnic minorities. The BURMA Act passed the House with overwhelming support last year because of bipartisan conviction that we must hold the military and security forces of Burma accountable for the horrific genocide they carried out against the Rohingya and the horrors they continue to inflict on other ethnic minorities in the country today. I am proud to re-introduce the bipartisan BURMA Act this Congress. We will not rest until there is justice.”
After this bill unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Engel said:
“The Rohingya who have been suffering at the hands of the Burmese military since the horrific attacks in 2017 shouldn’t have to wait for justice any longer. Meanwhile, the military is waging similar violence against other minorities, employing the cruel and inhumane tactics the Burmese army has used for decades. There needs to be relief from the violence and suffering. There needs to be accountability for those who have carried out the genocide against the Rohingya and ongoing horrors against other ethnic minorities. My legislation would provide new tools to help reach those goals. I hope this bill moves swiftly through the House and if it reaches the Senate, I hope that body’s leadership will see the dire need to get this measure across the finish line.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, adds:
“It has been nearly two years since the Burmese military committed crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, Burma. Since then there has been little accountability for these actions which have left nearly 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh without hope of returning to their homes. Chairman Engel and I introduced the BURMA Act in the last Congress because we believe there must be consequences for the Burmese military’s barbaric atrocities; today we continue the effort to hold the perpetrators accountable.”
American Jewish World Service (AJWS) supports this bill. Its Director of Government Affairs, Rori Kramer, says:
“As the leading global Jewish organization supporting human rights in Burma, we know the importance of addressing Burma’s culture of impunity that has allowed decade after decade of mass atrocities and human rights violations. Moreover, we cannot stand by when the Rohingya people are being targeted for genocide because we know from our own history that those who are silent are complicit in their oppression… By passing this bipartisan legislation, Congress will send a clear signal that the U.S. government is committed to redressing the wrongs perpetrated against all ethnic minorities in Burma, as well as the most extreme crimes committed against the Rohingya people. We must hold the perpetrators to account for their actions. Since the Burmese military launched a massive genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya people have been forced to flee their home country to escape horrific violence—simply because of their ethnicity and religion. The U.S. Congress should send a clear message to the Burmese military and the global community that the United States will not stay silent in the face of genocide and other atrocities. Both chambers of Congress must now pass the legislation to help restore the citizenship rights and dignity of the Rohingya people. This legislation also would apply pressure on the Burmese government to conduct inclusive negotiations—with the full participation of Rohingya leaders—to ensure a safe repatriation process and resolution to this crisis.”
Vice President Mike Pence has expressed sympathy for the Rohingya, stating:
‘‘This is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of millions of Americans. The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.’’
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also expressed his assessment that the Rohingya in Burma were subjected to ethnic cleansing, stating on August 25, 2018:
“A year ago, following deadly militant attacks, security forces responded by launching abhorrent ethnic cleansing of ethnic Rohingya in Burma… The U.S. will continue to hold those responsible accountable. The military must respect human rights for Burma’s democracy to succeed.’’
However, despite Pence’s and Pompeo’s declarations, the Trump administration has shied away from applying the designation of “genocide” to the Rohingya. In a 2018 report, the State Dept. found that the military “targeted civilians indiscriminately and often with extreme brutality," but declined to label the events of 2017 a genocide.
Myanmar, which has denied UN investigators and ICC prosecutors into its territory, denies accusations that the Rohingya were victims of genocide or ethnic cleansing. It labels the military crackdown as a response to “terrorists” from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who attacked police posts.
This legislation has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by voice vote with the support of 53 bipartisan cosponsors, including 40 Democrats and 13 Republicans. The FY2020 NDAA also includes this legislation. Global Witness, Jewish World Watch, and American Jewish World Service (AJWS) support this legislation.
Last Congress, this bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by voice vote with the support of 82 bipartisan cosponsors, including 53 Democrats and 29 Republicans. It also passed the House last Congress as a floor amendment to the NDAA, but the provision wasn’t taken up by the Senate and ultimately didn’t become law.
Previous legislation on the Rohingya genocide hasn’t passed due to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to bring the Senate versions to a vote. McConnell is a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was once glorified for her pro-democracy advocacy. As Burma’s de facto leader (she can’t become president because she has children who are foreign nationals) since 2016, Suu Kyi has largely defended the military’s conduct.
In 2017, Rep. Chabot argued that this bill’s sanctions would give Suu Kyi more leverage with the military, observing, "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.”
Of Note: Beginning on August 25, 2017, the Burmese military and security forces, along with civilian mobs, carried out widespread attacks, rapes, killings, and the burning of villages throughout Rakhine State, resulting in approximately 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
In spring 2018, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) conducted a survey of the firsthand experiences of 1,024 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. The survey’s goal was to document the atrocities committed against residents of Burma’s northern Rakhine State during the course of violence in the years 2016-2018. The survey found that the vast majority of Rohingya refugees experienced or directly witnessed extreme violence and the destruction of their homes, most often perpetrated by the Burmese military. The survey’s key findings were:
- Most Rohingya witnessed a killing, two-thirds witnessed an injury, and half witnessed sexual violence.
- Rohingya identified the Burmese military as a perpetrator in 84 percent of the killings or injuries they witnessed.
- Three-quarters of respondents saw members of the army kill someone, and the same proportion say they witnessed the army destroying huts or whole villages. Police, unidentified security forces, and armed civilians carried out the rest of the observed killings.
- One-fifth of all respondents witnessed a mass-casualty event of killings or injuries (either in their villages or as they fled) with more than 100 victims.
- 45 percent of refugees witnessed a rape, the majority of which were committed, in whole or part, by the army. Overall, nearly 40 percent of refugees saw members of the Burmese security services — either police or military — commit rapes. 18 percent of refugees saw members of the Burmese security services commit gang rapes.
- Members of the security services, as well as non-Rohingya civilians in some cases, targeted children and pregnant women.
- Those who were left behind because they were elderly, sick, or otherwise infirm were frequently found dead when their relatives returned to check on them.
The INR survey conclusively found that the violence committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and geared toward terrorizing the population and driving the Rohingya out.
In September 2018, a United Nations independent international fact-finding mission came to the same conclusions as the IHR survey. In its report, the mission reported that there were “consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses” in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, in addition to serious violations of international humanitarian law.. The UN report identified security forces, particularly the military, as the primary perpetrators of violence.
Global Witness reports that both the Burmese jade and ruby industries suffer from widespread secrecy, corruption, smuggling, and conflict. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs finds that illicit trafficking in Burmese gemstones “deprives the people of Burma and the civilian government of critical revenue and instead benefits military-linked entities, non-state armed groups, and transnational organized criminal networks.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Suvra Kanti Das)