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Top Myanmar generals are barred from entering US over Rohingya killings

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces.(Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images File 2018)

BANGKOK — The United States has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and three of his highest-ranking generals for their roles in the atrocities carried out against Rohingya Muslims since 2017, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced.

The four generals and their immediate family members will be barred from entering the United States, Pompeo said Tuesday. “With this announcement, the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese military,” he said in a statement.

Two years ago, brutal attacks by the military and Buddhist mobs in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, which included killings, rape, and arson, forced more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they have been living ever since in squalid refugee camps.

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The United Nations has labeled the attacks genocide, saying that Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals should face trial in an international court. But until now, no action has been taken against them.

The State Department imposed the travel ban because it could do so unilaterally and because it was a way to hold the individual generals accountable for the atrocities, senior officials at the department said.

But Myanmar’s reclusive military leaders have not been known to travel to the United States, and a spokesman for the military said Wednesday that the ban would have little practical effect.

“It doesn’t matter that they banned travel to the United States for the generals,” said the spokesman, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun. “But it does insult the Myanmar military’s dignity.”

The military has ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since it gained independence from Britain in 1948, and it has waged war almost continuously against various ethnic groups.

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Under the 2008 constitution drafted by the military, the senior general is Myanmar’s most powerful person and reports to no civilian authority. He controls the armed forces, the police, the border guards, two military business conglomerates, and a quarter of the members of Parliament, enough to block any constitutional change.

A civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, oversees social programs such as education and health care, but it has no control over the military.

Min Aung Hlaing, a career army officer who rose through the ranks, became known for attacks on ethnic groups in various parts of Myanmar, which drove tens of thousands of people from their homes. As commander in chief since 2011, he has proved adept at using social media to build public support for the military, known as the Tatmadaw. He is seen as a strong candidate to become president next year.

Last year, Facebook removed his account along with hundreds of others because of his role in enabling serious human rights abuses.

Pompeo noted that Min Aung Hlaing had ordered the release of soldiers convicted of participating in a massacre of Rohingyas after they had served only a few months in prison — far less time than the 16 months that two reporters for Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, spent behind bars for exposing that massacre.

Pompeo called that an “egregious example of the continued and severe lack of accountability for the military and its senior leadership.”

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Besides Myanmar’s top commander, the travel sanctions were also imposed on the deputy commander in chief, Soe Win; Brigadier General Than Oo; and Brigadier General Aung Aung, along with their family members. Pompeo said they were chosen “based on credible information of these commanders’ involvement in gross violations of human rights.”

State Department officials said the four generals, and two generals sanctioned earlier, were cited by a UN fact-finding mission as having had considerable command responsibility for the slaughter of the Rohingya.

“We remain concerned that the Burmese government has taken no actions to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, and there are continued reports of the Burmese military committing human rights violations and abuses throughout the country,” Pompeo said.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a London-based advocacy group, said the travel ban was far too weak a response. He said the United States could have brought the generals before an ad hoc tribunal, backed an arms embargo, or imposed stronger sanctions on military-owned companies.

“Essentially this is a holiday ban,” he said. “Limiting Min Aung Hlaing’s holiday options is not a proportionate response to genocide.”