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US lawmakers seek to slap new sanctions on Myanmar military

Young Rohingya Muslim refugees attend an informal school at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia district on November 4, 2017. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August carrying accounts of murder, rape and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s powerful army during a military crackdown dubbed as “ethnic cleansing” by the UN. / AFP PHOTO / Dibyangshu SARKAR

US lawmakers proposed sanctions Friday against Myanmar’s military, in some of the strongest efforts yet by Washington to pressure the Southeast Asian nation to end abusive treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

House Republicans and Democrats introduced legislation that would curtail assistance or cooperation with Myanmar’s military and require the White House to identify senior military officials who would have US visa bans imposed or reimposed against them.

A bipartisan group in the Senate, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, introduced their bill Thursday.

It calls for renewal of import and trade restrictions on Myanmar, including re-imposing a ban on jade and rubies from the country also known as Burma.

“Our legislation would hold accountable the senior military officials responsible for the slaughter and displacement of innocent men, women and children in Burma, and make clear that the United States will not stand for these atrocities,” McCain said in a statement.

The tough proposals came as US President Donald Trump departed for an extended trip to Asia, where he will attend a summit with Southeast Asian nations including Myanmar.

The United States, while condemning the deadly violence that has prompted more than 600,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, has been careful to say it holds the military responsible, not Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

House Democrat 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.

“This violence must stop, perpetrators must be held accountable, and there must be meaningful civilian control over Burma’s military and security forces,” Engel said.

Lawmakers also want Myanmar’s military to ensure safe return of refugees displaced from northern Rakhine State, where the military has been accused by the United Nations of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“There will be consequences for their crimes against humanity,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democratic sponsor of the bill.

Myanmar officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

But dealers in the gem industry — a lucrative sector that was under US sanctions until last October — shrugged off the threat, saying China was still the top buyer.

“If (sanctions) are reimposed, there will be no harm to us. We used to work under sanctions in the past as well,” Tun Hla Aung, secretary of Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association, told AFP.

The fate of the legislation may rest in part with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime friend and ally of embattled Suu Kyi.

The two politicians spoke by telephone in September, when she assured McConnell she was working to get aid to Rohingya Muslims.

McConnell defended the Nobel peace laureate after the call, warning that “publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, the best hope for democratic reform in Burma, is not constructive”.

Suu Kyi has been hammered by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defense of the Rohingya.

On Thursday she visited Rakhine for the first time.

McConnell’s office said the Republican leader was reviewing the sanctions legislation. As Senate leader, McConnell determines which bills get to the floor for a vote.

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