By CLARE HAMMOND | FRONTIER
YANGON — The European Union has imposed sanctions on seven Myanmar security officials over their alleged involvement in atrocities and serious human rights violations committed against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State last year.
In a decision announced today, the EU said the violations included unlawful killings, sexual violence and the systematic burning of Rohingya houses and buildings in late 2017. It has imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on the seven members of the Tatmadaw and Myanmar Police Force.
The sanctions relate to military clearance operations last August which caused around 700,000 people — mostly Rohingya Muslims — to flee from Rakhine State to Bangladesh.
Myanmar claims the operations were a legitimate response to attacks on police posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants, which took place in late August.
The seven individuals targeted today include Lieutenant General Aung Kyaw Zaw, who the EU said was commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 3 of the Tatmadaw from August 2015 until the end of 2017.
The BSO oversaw the Tatmadaw’s Western Command and the EU said it holds Aung Kyaw Zaw responsible for atrocities committed during this period against the Rohingya population.
Major General Maung Maung Soe, who led the Western Command from October 2016 to November 2017 and is already sanctioned by the United States and Canada, has also been sanctioned by the EU, as has Brigadier General Than Oo, Commander of the Tatmadaw’s 99th Light Infantry Division, a notorious outfit believed to have been involved in the Rakhine crackdown.
Brigadier General Aung Aung, commander of the 33rd Light Infantry Division, Major General Khin Maung Soe, commander of the 15th Light Infantry Division, Brigadier General Thura San Lwin, who was commander of the Border Guard Police from October 2016 until October 2017, and Thant Zin Oo, commander of the 8th Security Police Battalion were also sanctioned in today’s decision.
The EU said today it adopted a legal framework for targeted restricted measures against individuals from the Tatmadaw and border police on April 26, making it possible to impose individual sanctions “should crimes continue to go unpunished”.
It reiterated earlier calls on the government and security forces to “ensure that security, the rule of law and accountability prevail in Myanmar, including in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states”.
It said the European Council would monitor the situation closely and keep its decision under constant review, including the possibility of further targeted restrictive measures.
In February, as the EU opened the way towards the adoption of targeted sanctions, it also confirmed its “strong engagement in support of Myanmar’s democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation process and inclusive socio-economic development”.
In a recent sign of continued engagement, last week the EU announced a €14 million grant (K22.7 billion), to be channeled through two EU-funded projects in support of the Union Election Commission and other institutions.
The bloc also continues to engage with the Myanmar Police Force, which is part of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. Its MYPOL project trains police officers, assists in the reform of the legal framework and aims to improve the relationship between police and the public.
EU ambassador to Myanmar Mr Kristian Schmidt told Frontier last week that the EU takes concerns about its continued engagement with Myanmar’s police seriously.
“What we are trying to ultimately achieve is that the MPF develops into a professional, modern police service that complies with international standards and human rights, and that is trusted by all communities,” he said.
“We still stand at the beginning of a substantial reform process. We recognise the existing challenges but we can only advocate change if we continue dialogue and cooperation with the government and rule of law institutions.”
Business ties between the EU and Myanmar have increased significantly since 2012 with the lifting of a majority of economic sanctions and reinstatement of the Generalized System of Preferences for Myanmar exports.
In 2013, work began on an Investment Protection Agreement but this has not yet been signed. The Myanmar Times reported last October it had been postponed in light of the political and human rights “situation”.
Meanwhile, Myanmar is facing pressure from elsewhere to bring those responsible for alleged atrocities in Rakhine State to account.
On June 21 judges at the International Criminal Court asked the government to respond to a request that the court should have jurisdiction over the “deportation” of over 670,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh.
ICC chief prosecutor Ms Fatou Bensouda asked judges in April to rule if she could open a probe into whether Myanmar “intentionally deported” the refugees. She argued that her office had the authority to investigate, despite Myanmar not being a member of the ICC.
“Considering that the crime of deportation is alleged to have commenced on the territory of Myanmar, the chamber deems it appropriate to seek observations from the competent authorities of Myanmar on the prosecutor’s request,” the ICC decision said, giving Myanmar until July 27 to respond.
U Zaw Htay, director general of the Ministry of the State Counsellor’s Office, said on June 23 the government would reject efforts to refer Myanmar to the ICC.
“If you look at ICC’s history, it cannot take action against non-member states. If they try to proceed with something that cannot be done, we will not accept it,” he said, according to an article in state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
Government and military spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment today.
Washington is also paving the way to impose additional sanctions on Myanmar. On May 17, the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a bill to impose targeted sanctions on senior Myanmar military officials and to encourage reform of the gemstone industry.
The central provisions of the “Burma Act” 2018 were added to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the house approved on May 24.
The following day Myanmar’s opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party released a statement condemning the bill, which it said was “enacted to manipulate Myanmar’s politics, defence, security and economic sectors” with the intention of seeking to influence and interfere in the country’s sovereignty.
“We will not accept any foreign influence and interference using the Rakhine State issues as an excuse to interfere [in] Myanmar’s politics, defence and economy, and we will not tolerate any attempt to weaken the Tatmadaw which is steadfastly fulfilling its national duties,” it said.