US Politics

Chilling details of Rohingya violence emerge as US slaps sanctions on Myanmar


A Myanmar general has been accused of overseeing extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and the widespread burning of villages.

The United States has imposed new sanctions on a Myanmar general involved in the brutal crackdown against the country’s Rohingya population – but experts are debating how effective such moves can be.

Maung Maung Soe was one of dozens of people hit on Thursday with what the US Treasury called a “new sanctions regime targeting human rights abusers and corrupt actors around the world.”

Multiple organisations were also targeted. 

Secretary of the US Treasury Steven Mnuchin said “bad actors” like Maung Maung Soe will be shut out from the US financial system which “sends a message that there is a steep price to pay for their misdeeds.”

A statement from the US Treasury said that Maung Maung Soe oversaw the military operation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State responsible for widespread human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

“The United States Government examined credible evidence of Maung Maung Soe’s activities, including allegations against Burmese security forces of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrest as well as the widespread burning of villages,” it said.

Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said sanctions will send “a message that there is a steep price to pay for their misdeeds.”
Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said sanctions will send “a message that there is a steep price to pay for their misdeeds.”

The exact details were chilling.

"In August 2017, soldiers described as being from the Western Command allegedly entered a village and reportedly separated the inhabitants by gender," the statement said.

"According to witnesses, soldiers opened fire on the men and older boys and committed multiple acts of rape. Many of the women and younger children were reportedly also shot. Other witnesses described soldiers setting huts on fire with villagers inside."

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since military "clearance operations" began after attacks by Rohingya militants.

Will sanctions help or hinder?

Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch John Sifton told SBS News that the sanctions will mean Maung Maung Soe will have any funds or assets in US institutions immediately seized and most of the world's banks and financial institutions will not allow him to use their services.

“The designation is also very embarrassing to … the Burmese military,” he said, adding that it may “think twice about conducting atrocities in the future.”

While Thursday’s move was just against one individual, it remains to be seen if the US will undertake broader sanctions against Myanmar.

But Lachlan McDonald, an Australian economist based in Yangon said this move may actually be counterproductive.

“A quick read of history shows that Western sanctions on Myanmar have not had the impact they so desired. They did not previously impact military strategy and government policy.”

“Rather, they were counterproductive because they had a galvanising effect; feeding into a narrative that led previous leaders to exert even more control, while the economy, and the general population suffered.”

“There is a risk here that history will repeat itself. That the sanctions could feed a narrative – currently gaining broad traction – that the international community is unfairly treating Myanmar, and further emboldening the very people the sanctions are supposed to target.”

“The signal is that the West is turning its back on Myanmar [which] may well push Myanmar further toward China as a trading partner and toward extractive industries.”

Sean Turnell, a professor of economics at Macquarie University who has served as an economic adviser to the Myanmar Government similarly warned about once again isolating Myanmar economically.

“A new – primarily young – business cohort has emerged amidst the freedoms of recent years. [They are] a liberal force that are challenging the ancient prejudices and are a real hope for the future. Because they are internationally engaged, however, they are highly vulnerable to contagion effects of sanctions,” Mr Turnell said.

He said meanwhile, the so-called crony class in Myanmar or the “the economic foundation of the old military order” would be relatively strengthened by a new regime of sanctions.

“A siege economy is, one might say, very much their comfort zone,” he said.

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