On February 10, U.S. President Joe Biden announced further sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders following a military coup on February 1. That coup, along with the arrest of Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other civilian leaders, sparked protests across the country.
During a February 5 episode of the "World According to Jesse,” which airs on Russia’s state-funded RT America channel, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and co-host Brigida Santos discussed events in Myanmar.
Santos raised the arrest of Suu Kyi, noting the ousted leader had “defended her country as its predominately Buddhist military committed genocide against Rohingya Muslim minorities on her watch."
She said that the U.S. has been hypocritical in condemning China’s "alleged genocide” of Uighur Muslims in its northwestern Xinjiang region given “the genocide” of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
"The Trump and Biden administrations have both called China's repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang genocide, but the U.S. has also sanctioned Chinese authorities over the internment of Muslim minorities. And yet Washington is somehow backing Myanmar's leader even though she has been criticized by the international community for her role in the genocide of Muslims,” Santos said.
“Hypocrisy always seems to ensue when the government can somehow benefit.”
The statement is misleading. The U.S. has sanctioned officials in both countries for their roles in the alleged genocides.
U.S. opposition to the military coup in Myanmar and support for civilian governance in general is different than direct support for Suu Kyi or her policies. While it’s true that Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar against genocide accusations at the top United Nations court, she had no control over the military when it launched the brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, which began in late 2016.
In August 2018, U.N. investigators found that Myanmar’s military had perpetrated unlawful killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence on a massive scale against Muslim Rohingya with “genocidal intent.”
The then-U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that the State Department's own fact-finding report was "consistent" with the U.N. report. However, the State Department avoided the term “genocide” due to the “complexity” of such legal designations, then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.
In November 2017, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “ethnic cleansing” and “horrendous atrocities” were being carried out against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. He added that those behind the crimes should be “held accountable” and called for targeted sanctions.
In November 2018, then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence directly criticized Suu Kyi for the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
“The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” Pence told Suu Kyi during a face-to-face meeting in Singapore.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on those responsible for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
In August 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced it had “sanctioned four Burmese military and Border Guard Police commanders and two Burmese military units for their involvement in ethnic cleansing in Burma’s Rakhine State and other widespread human rights abuses in Burma’s Kachin and Shan States.”
In December 2019, senior Burmese military leaders were hit with sanctions for committing “serious human rights abuse against members of ethnic minority groups across [Myanmar], including those in the northern Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, among others” under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Among those sanctioned were military chief Min Aung Hlaing (who instigated the recent coup), his deputy Soe Win, and two light infantry division heads whose troops “participated in serious human rights” abuses.
In July 2019, the State Department banned those military leaders and their family members from traveling to the United States “for gross human rights violations, including in extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine State, Burma, during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.”
On January 19, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump formally labeled China’s actions against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as genocide.
Under Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not deviated from that assessment.
The U.S. State Department has yet to apply such a designation to crimes against humanity in Myanmar. However, during his Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, Blinken said he would oversee an interagency review to determine whether the actions taken by Myanmar’s security forces against Rohingya Muslims constituted genocide.
Members of Congress have been more resolute.
In December 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 394-1 to declare Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya genocide.
Following the February 1 coup in Myanmar, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said the Myanmar military was “guilty of genocide against the Rohingya and of a sustained campaign of violence against Burma’s ethnic minorities.”
Meanwhile, U.S. support for Suu Kyi has been more broadly tied to support for democratization in Myanmar. After decades of military rule there ended in 2011, the U.S. lifted comprehensive sanctions in 2012-2013. According to the Associated Press, U.S. officials feared a reintroduction of full sanctions and/or a genocide label could undermine civilian governance and undo the country’s democratic transition.
The U.S. has faced criticism for that decision, amid calls for stronger sanctions and a genocide designation to halt the killing.
However, Suu Kyi’s alleged role in the genocide is not comparable to that of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang.
And unlike the U.S., where the president is the commander in chief, the head of Myanmar’s armed forces is also the commander-in-chief. Suu Kyi, as the State Counselor of Myanmar, had no authority over the commander-in-chief.
Suu Kyi was also constitutionally banned from serving as Myanmar's president, who is the legal head of state and government.
The Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Border Affairs, and Ministry of Home Affairs — which collectively handle Myanmar's security forces — are also under the military’s control.
Following the July 2019 visa bans on Min Aung Hlaing and others, senior U.S. State Department officials were asked if Suu Kyi or other members of Myanmar’s civilian government would face similar sanctions. One of those officials replied that the military was being targeted because evidence shows that “[t]hey are responsible for the commission of these atrocities.”
The U.S. official said that Myanmar’s military, which “stands outside of all civilian control at this point and is a law unto itself,” would ideally be brought under civilian control, advancing democratization in Myanmar.
Independent analysts, including Myanmar specialist and journalist Francis Wade, have likewise argued that Suu Kyi should not bear the brunt of genocide allegations.
“The security crackdown is a military campaign orchestrated by Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief. He is the person to whom blame should be primarily directed,” Wade told the Council on Foreign Relations.
“What is interesting is that the military, as an institution, has essentially engineered itself into a position whereby it can commit such atrocities, but Aung San Suu Kyi takes the blame.”
Still, Wade and others have noted that Suu Kyi and the government have defended the military’s actions, prompting what has widely been described as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s “fall from grace.”
In December 2018, then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said both Suu Kyi and Aung Min Hlaing could face genocide charges.