Ahead of the expected release of a State Department investigation into the Rohingya crisis, new documents obtained by POLITICO show how the Trump administration isn’t fully enforcing tough Myanmar-related U.S. laws already on the books. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Weeks after Myanmar’s armed forces began raping, killing and displacing minority Rohingya Muslims, President Donald Trump’s administration promised to hold the Asian nation accountable for what some researchers say is a genocide.
Almost a year later, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on just one Myanmar military leader; Congress has failed to pass legislation penalizing the country; and efforts to further restrict minimal U.S.-Myanmar military ties have stalled. Story Continued Below
Now, ahead of the expected release of a State Department investigation into the Rohingya crisis, new documents obtained by POLITICO show how the Trump administration isn’t even fully enforcing tough Myanmar-related U.S. laws already on the books.
According to material, the administration, invoking questionable grounds of “national interest,” has been permitting the children of some past and present Myanmar military leaders to travel to the U.S. — despite a years-old law prohibiting such immediate relatives from obtaining U.S. visas.
Meanwhile, the administration, citing the same law, insists it is taking a hard line on Myanmar by not granting visas to the military leaders themselves.
Congressional aides and human rights activists say such selective enforcement of existing U.S. visa sanctions underscores the mixed signals the U.S. has sent to Myanmar, also known as Burma, about its views on the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
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The U.S. would send a much tougher message to Myanmar’s military leaders if it refused to issue waivers to the visa ban for their relatives as well as themselves, observers say.
“It’s natural that sanctions are going to hit home the most when your family is affected,” said Simon Billenness, executive director of the International Campaign for the Rohingya. “Even those army commanders who are guilty of horrific human rights abuses, they still care about their family.”
In response to several questions, a State Department spokesman noted that U.S. rules restrict what the department can say about individual applicants, but added: “In the cases of waivers for children, we consider them on a case-by-case basis consistent with our overall policy objectives for Burma.”
Those objectives, the spokesman said, include supporting Myanmar’s recent efforts to transition from military rule to a democratic civilian government.
Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the Myanmar military began its crackdown last Aug. 25. Since January, the U.S. has issued at least five travel waivers for the children of past and present Myanmar military leaders so that they can obtain U.S. visas, according to “sensitive but unclassified” congressional notifications shared with POLITICO.
In accordance with the 2008 law barring such individuals from U.S. entry, the State Department has had to make the case for the waivers on grounds that it is in America’s “national interest” to grant the visas.
But the grounds that are invoked often seem to stretch that definition.
One waiver went to the son of a Myanmar brigadier general on U.S. national interest grounds because he “has potential to become an influential leader in the field of biodiversity scientific research and management.” Another was granted to the daughter of a retired brigadier general because “furthering Burma’s capacity in her field of study, organizational development, is in the U.S. national interest.”
The daughter of a navy rear admiral received a waiver so she could keep attending New York University. The State Department argued that the student’s desire to return to Myanmar and set up “entrepreneurial programs with maximum social impact” was in America’s national interest.
One case arguably had more merit than others: The son of a retired Myanmar general received a waiver because of his record of supporting press freedom; the man had spent years imprisoned when Myanmar was fully under military control.
But another case raised questions about whether the U.S. is giving favorable treatment to some of the very people it should be pressuring to stop mistreating the Rohingya.
The case involved the daughter of a top military official serving in Myanmar’s embassy in Washington. The State Department argued that she should be permitted to visit her father because “it will foster a positive relationship with Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
A congressional aide said that, aside from the cases shown in the documents obtained by POLITICO, there were at least two other instances of children of Myanmar military leaders granted U.S. entry.
U.S. lawmakers can complain about the visa waivers but can’t block them. Among those watching are the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and New York’s Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.
A Menendez aide said several Senate offices had raised concerns with the Trump administration over its use of its visa waiver authority for Myanmar and “whether such waivers are appropriate given the lack of accountability over human rights abuses and political oppression.”
In a statement, Engel said, “It’s unacceptable that the administration continues to waive certain sanctions on Burma while refusing to ratchet up the pressure on the Burmese military.”
Human rights activists say there are some justifiable reasons to grant relatives of Myanmar’s military leaders U.S. visas, including the need for special medical treatment.
They warned, however, that the Trump administration’s unwillingness to use every tool it has to respond to the Rohingya crisis would lead Myanmar’s military to believe that it will ultimately get away with what the U.S. itself calls an “ethnic cleansing.”
It doesn’t help that America has done so little else to punish Myanmar, they said.
“Given what’s happened over the last year to the Rohingya, re-imposing the strongest targeted sanctions to squeeze the military officials would be the smartest approach,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
Billenness’ organization has asked Trump to re-impose other sanctions on Myanmar that President Barack Obama lifted via executive authority. Obama removed those sanctions as part of a rapprochement with Myanmar as the Buddhist-majority country moved toward democracy.
There’s no sign Trump plans to reverse Obama’s actions. But it is possible that when the State Department releases the results of its Rohingya investigation later this month, it will announce new sanctions on a handful of Myanmar security officials. Those sanctions have been in bureaucratic limbo because Treasury Department officials are not on board.
In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked bipartisan attempts to impose sanctions or otherwise penalize the Myanmar military. McConnell is a major supporter of Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and he worries that new sanctions will undermine her long-running efforts to bring the country to full democracy. Myanmar’s civilian rulers still do not control the military.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent years under house arrest for standing up to Myanmar’s generals, was long viewed as an icon of hope for the oppressed people of her country. But after her release, she has failed to stand up for the Rohingya, whose cause is politically unpopular in the country, thus badly damaging her global reputation.
The State Department visa waiver information obtained by POLITICO was all approved by the head of the division that handles East Asian and Pacific Affairs. That bureau has often argued against imposing sanctions on Myanmar, saying that economic engagement is more effective in changing a country’s behavior. It has often clashed with U.S. officials focused on human rights.
The Trump administration has used various types of sanctions extensively. But it has been inconsistent in how it has treated different countries.
For instance, while only certain categories of Myanmar citizens are restricted from getting U.S. visas, the Trump administration has imposed far more draconian travel bans affecting nearly everyone from a handful of majority-Muslim countries, including Iran and Syria.
And while to date only one Myanmar military official has been sanctioned over the crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, the administration recently sanctioned two members of the Turkish Cabinet over the continued imprisonment of an American Christian pastor.
Trump aides have faced criticism for being slow to react to the Rohingya crisis in its first few weeks.
In one case, documents show that the U.S. granted a Myanmar general permission to attend a Hawaii gathering of air force leaders in late September. Although his waiver was granted days before Aug. 25, the State Department would not say whether it canceled his visa as the crisis quickly grew. It did, however, say the general did not attend the event.
In the congressional notifications, the State Department notes that none of the people it is granting entry, nor their military official relatives, are known to have been implicated in human rights abuses.
But given the Myanmar military’s lack of transparency and limits on U.S. access to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the recent atrocities occurred, it’s unclear how the State Department can assess who is culpable or not.
The Rohingya have been persecuted for decades in Myanmar. They have little support in the country, where many residents buy government claims that they are illegal migrants, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The military has called its actions last year a clearance operation targeting Rohingya insurgents who had attacked its security forces. But recent investigations indicate the military had planned the crackdown well in advance.
The Muslim minority is so despised that Myanmar’s leaders refuse to even use the term Rohingya and warn other countries not to do so. In the congressional notifications, the State Department doesn’t use the word, sticking to euphemisms such as “the situation in Rakhine state.”
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