The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, sent mixed messages at the news conference in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, at the conclusion of his brief visit to Myanmar on November 15. While he indicated that the US was deeply concerned by reports of atrocities committed by Myanmar's security forces, he was lukewarm about economic sanctions against the country. This will undoubtedly muddy the waters further since it is evidently clear that the country's military can only be persuaded away from its past policies and behaviour towards the Rohingya minority by a combination of diplomacy, sanctions, and universal condemnation.
It is time for the international community to use the various instruments available including individual and collective sanctions. In the press conference where he stood alongside State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and expressed his reservations about “broad-based economic sanctions,” Mr Tillerson endorsed a parallel strategy. “If we have credible information that we believe to be very reliable that certain individuals were responsible for certain acts that we find unacceptable, then targeted sanctions on individuals very well may be appropriate.” Unfortunately, all these “ifs” and “buts” can only prolong the crisis and cause further suffering to the more than 600,000 refugees. The whole world can see what is happening and has happened since August 25 when the security forces in Myanmar unleashed their wrath on an innocent and defenceless population.
In this context, one could ask Mr Tillerson, when credible sources such as the UN, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have documented the murders, persecution, and other forms of brutalities committed against the Rohingyas, what further credible information are needed before the US government can take further actions? Matthew Smith, head of Fortify Rights, the advocacy group, did not mince words when he said, “These crimes thrive on impunity and inaction. Condemnations aren't enough. Without urgent international action towards accountability, more mass killings are likely.”
In the past, the military of Myanmar has defied international pressure during its tight grip on its political system, and its policy towards Rohingyas. Like North Korea's leaders, the military rulers of Myanmar have a big ego. They also enjoy the support from some regional allies including China, India, Japan, and Singapore. Why? One only needs to review the data on Foreign Direct Investment by these countries in Myanmar that might be at stake. So Bangladesh and other friends of Rohingyas also need to influence Myanmar's trading partners who have an influence over its military.
Myanmar's largest trading partners are China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Germany and Hong Kong. Myanmar is a net importer of oil, and a net exporter of natural gas. Its firms require refined crude oil products to produce natural gas, and while the current low oil prices are aiding the country's export revenue, an economic threat to its access to international markets will have the desired effect. Unfortunately, China torpedoed a UN Security Council “resolution” proposed by the UK and supported by all members barring China. The Council subsequently approved an alternative version, known as “presidential statement,” which became part of the council's record but “does not have the legal clout of a resolution.”
On the positive side, the recent rounds of international condemnations and threats of economic and targeted sanctions against Myanmar's generals have shown modest results. Its government recently announced that it has removed Major General Maung Maung Soe from his position as the head of Western Commands in Rakhine, and replaced him with Brigadier General Soe Tint Naing.
Bangladesh and its allies could also consider, in the absence of broad economic sanctions, resorting to other measures that can target the military, its personnel, and its ability to fund its anti-humanitarian activities. Earlier this month, some US legislators including Senator John McCain introduced a legislation that would re-impose a ban on jade and rubies from the country. Congressman Eliot Engel said, “Lawmakers wanted to send a clear message with the targeted sanctions, both to the military and the civilian leadership, about the violence that has left hundreds of people dead.”
Similarly, 60 human rights organisations have written to Secretary Tillerson for the US to impose sanctions under the JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act. This act empowers the US president to issue travel restrictions and financial sanctions against Burmese officials and their families in case of “gross violations of human rights in Burma or in the commission of other human rights abuses.”
Another existing legislation, the Global Magnitsky Act, originally passed to punish individuals involved in human rights violations in Russia, is being considered to provide the legal framework to target officials in Myanmar. These sanctions can take the form of asset freezes for funds held in US banks and bans on visas for coming to the US, and are applicable for senior officials, low-level officers, and even non-government associates.
Senators Ben Cardin and John McCain have asked President Trump to investigate cases involving 20 individuals or entities from nine “geographically diverse countries” for gross violations of human rights and seven individuals or entities from six different countries for acts of significant corruption. Last September, HRW and others separately submitted the names of 15 individuals from around the globe with detailed “evidentiary dossiers” on acts of barbarity perpetrated by them including torture, kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, and extortion. To allow for full and complete vetting, the names of the individuals and entities recommended for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act remain confidential throughout the review process. However, this process can be applied to bring the generals of Myanmar to see the pernicious effect of their heavy-handed response to the current Rohingya crisis, and more importantly, act as a deterrent against any future acts of barbarity against Rohingyas.
On February 21, 2017, the United Kingdom passed its own version of the Global Magnitsky Act. Both the Canadian Parliament and the European Parliament are considering bills to target international human rights violators. Other countries can, and should, act along the same vein to respond to the crimes committed by Myanmar.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and Senior Research Fellow at the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank based in Boston, USA.