The United States is taking steps and considering a range of further actions over Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority, including targeted sanctions under its Global Magnitsky law, the State Department has said.

“We express our gravest concern with recent events in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the violent, traumatic abuses Rohingya and other communities have endured,” it said in a statement.

“It is imperative that any individuals or entities responsible for atrocities, including non-state actors and vigilantes, be held accountable,” it said.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since late August when Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

Myanmar military responsible: Tillerson

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last Wednesday that the United States held Myanmar’s military leadership responsible for its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Tillerson stopped short of saying whether the United States would take any action against Myanmar’s military leaders over an offensive that has created one of the biggest refugee crisis in years, driving most of the Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.

The State Department made the announcement ahead of US President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to the region early next month when he will attend a summit of ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, in Manila.

It marked the strongest US response so far to the two-month-long Rohingya crisis but came short of applying the most drastic tools at Washington’s disposal such as reimposing broader economic sanctions suspended under the Obama administration.

Rohingya refugees, arrive to the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river (L) after crossing the border from Myanmar, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, reach the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river in Palang Khali after crossing the border from Myanmar. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

‘Slow, timid US response’

Critics have accused the Trump administration of acting too slowly and timidly in response to the Rohingya crisis.

The State Department said on Monday: “We are exploring accountability mechanisms available under US law, including Global Magnitsky targeted sanctions.”

Measures already taken include ending travel waivers for current and former members of the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and barring units and officers in northern Rakhine state from US assistance, it said.

“We have rescinded invitations for senior Burmese security forces to attend US-sponsored events; we are working with international partners to urge that Burma enables unhindered access to relevant areas for the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, international humanitarian organizations, and media,” the statement said.

In addition, Washington is “consulting with allies and partners on accountability options at the UN, the UN Human Rights Council, and other appropriate venues,” it said.

Aimed at top generals?

Interviews with more than a dozen diplomats and government officials based in Washington, Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, and Europe have revealed that punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals were among a range of options being discussed in response to the Rohingya crisis.

Such measures could include the possibility of imposing asset freezes and prohibiting American citizens from doing business with them.

Washington has worked hard to establish close ties with Myanmar’s civilian-led government led by Nobel laureate and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of competition from strategic rival China.

Forty-three US lawmakers urged the Trump administration to reimpose US travel bans on Myanmar’s military leaders and prepare targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown.

The Magnitsky Act, originally passed in 2012, imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials linked to the 2009 death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian whistleblower. It has since been expanded to become the Global Magnitsky Act, which could be used against the generals in Myanmar.

Rohingya refugees line up to get food from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) near Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on October 21. Photo: Reuters/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees line up to get food from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) near Balukhali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on October 21. Photo: Reuters/

Aid pledging conference in Geneva

Bangladesh says the crisis has put it in an “untenable” situation. Its UN envoy, Shameem Ahsan, spoke at a conference in Geneva to raise funds for victims forced to flee. “Thousands still enter on a daily basis,” he said.

Ahsan said aid was desperately needed until Myanmar agrees to a “safe, dignified, voluntary return of its nationals back to their homes”.

The UN is seeking US$434 million to help more than a million people over the next six months. About US$340 million has been pledged to date.

Humanitarian agencies say conditions in the camps at Cox’s Bazar are dreadful, with little clean water, proper shelter and food given there is currently just one access road and it is usually congested.

Many children and refugees are also badly traumatised, having witnessed atrocities and fled for their lives.