Bipartisan House bill seeks to punish Burma for genocide

Bipartisan House bill seeks to punish Burma for genocide
© Getty Images

A pair of powerful House lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday intended to punish the Burmese government for its brutal campaign targeting ethnic minority groups across the country.

Sponsored by Reps. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial Parties unite to move Myanmar sanctions bill Lawmakers warn of 'grave situation' after drone shot down MORE (D-N.Y.) and Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotParties unite to move Myanmar sanctions bill GOP hopes dim on reclaiming House Lawmakers explore easing rules on small cannabis businesses MORE (R-Ohio), the proposal aims to hold Burma's military junta accountable for a long-running campaign of violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim group occupying western regions of the state, as well as more recent campaigns targeting other minority groups within the Buddhist-majority country.


Among the penalties, the bill would bar any new military assistance to Burma until the regime enacts reforms; slap new trade sanctions on the government; and impose new visa and financial limits on the military leaders behind the atrocities.

“Since August of 2017, the Burmese military has inflicted horrific violence against the Rohingya in Burma's Rakhine State, and today is using the same tactics against the Kachin and other ethnic minorities," Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. 

"We will not rest until there is justice.”

The idea of imposing new restrictions on Burma's military regime is hardly new. In the last Congress, the House passed similar sanctions legislation as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The measure won overwhelming bipartisan support in the lower chamber but hit a roadblock in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility California governor predicts 'xenophobic' GOP will likely be third party in 15 years This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request MORE (R-Ky.) has opposed the proposal.

The most recent campaign of violence against the Rohingya began in the summer of 2017, when Burmese military forces swept into the region and killed thousands of members of the group, while forcing more than 700,000 others into neighboring Bangladesh, where they've languished in some of the largest refugee camps in the world.

 A United Nations report released last year found evidence that Burmese forces were responsible for mass killings, gang rapes and other “violations [that] undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” The U.N. labeled the purge a "genocide," and recommended the perpetrators be tried before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The Trump administration, to the consternation of the Rohingya champions on Capitol Hill, has not gone so far.

While the State Department last year released its own report on the Burmese atrocities — finding that the Burmese military “targeted civilians indiscriminately and often with extreme brutality” — the agency stopped short of labeling the tragedy a genocide.

That's omission has angered lawmakers in both parties, who are warning that a failure to confront Burmese leaders more aggressively threatens the reputation of the United States as a champion of human rights.

Aside from the sanctions provisions, the Engel-Chabot bill would require new reporting on crimes against humanity in Burma; provide U.S. assistance with investigations that could lead to the prosecution of war criminals; and promote efforts to spread Burma's vast mineral wealth, largely controlled by the military elite, more broadly throughout the country.

"Chairman Engel and I introduced the BURMA Act in the last Congress because we believe there must be consequences for the Burmese military’s barbaric atrocities," Chabot said. "Today we continue the effort to hold the perpetrators accountable.”