In a unanimous vote yesterday, Republicans and Democrats in a key US Senate committee joined to support important new legislation to address the appalling deterioration in Burma’s human rights record over the past year, in particular rampant abuses against the Rohingya Muslim population. The vote demonstrated a broad bipartisan consensus that a shift is needed in US policy toward Burma.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act and passed it out of the committee with no objections. It will now need a full vote on the Senate floor. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Passage of the legislation would demonstrate broad-based US concern for the situation since late August 2017, when the Burmese military began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in western Burma’s Rakhine State, committing widespread killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and mass arson in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages. More than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh while many others remain displaced within Burma.
The Senate bill, S. 2060, will enhance the US government’s authority to impose narrowly tailored sanctions and travel restrictions on military and other security personnel implicated in the abuses, including commanders who exercised command and control over the military operation. An amendment to the bill, introduced by Senator Edward Markey, cites Human Rights Watch research on widespread gang rapes and other sexual and gender-based violence and calls on the government to sanction implicated commanders.
Human Rights Watch found that the recent atrocities against the Rohingya amounted to crimes against humanity, as were attacks on the population in 2012. For decades, successive Burmese governments have discriminated against the Rohingya, who were effectively denied citizenship. Severe restrictions were placed on their freedom of movement, access to basic health care, and education, and employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, Burma’s nascent democratic transition shows signs of weakening. The military has completely blocked efforts to end its constitutionally protected role in the government, and it is still committing serious abuses during operations in other ethnic minority areas, blocking access to humanitarian agencies, and causing mass displacement.
Thus far, Burma’s leadership, particularly its military commanders, have been able to ignore diplomatic pressure to reverse their abusive policies. It is now clear that their behavior won’t change until the costs of inaction grow too high for them to bear. This bill can help impose those higher costs.