US lawmakers proposed on Friday sanctions and travel restrictions against Myanmar's military, in one of the strongest efforts yet by Washington to push the Southeast Asian nation to end abusive treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
House Republicans and Democrats introduced the legislation that would reimpose some sanctions lifted last year as Myanmar returned to democracy. It also would bar the United States from supplying most assistance to the country’s military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya are held accountable.
A bipartisan group in the Senate, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, introduced their bill Thursday.
It calls for renewal of import and trade restrictions on Myanmar, including re-imposing a ban on jade and rubies from the country also known as Burma.
"Our legislation would hold accountable the senior military officials responsible for the slaughter and displacement of innocent men, women and children in Burma, and make clear that the United States will not stand for these atrocities," McCain said in a statement.
The tough proposals came as US President Donald Trump departed for his first trip as president to Asia, where he will attend a summit with Southeast Asian nations including Myanmar.
The State Department announced on Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would accompany Trump on his trip to Asia, and also stop in Myanmar.
The United States, while condemning the deadly violence that has prompted more than 600,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, has been careful to say it holds the military responsible, not Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government.
House Democrat Eliot Engel said lawmakers wanted to send a "clear message" with the targeted sanctions, both to the military and the civilian leadership, about the violence that has left hundreds of people dead.
"This violence must stop, perpetrators must be held accountable, and there must be meaningful civilian control over Burma's military and security forces," Engel said.
Lawmakers also want Myanmar's military to ensure safe return of refugees displaced from northern Rakhine State, where the military has been accused by the United Nations of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
"There will be consequences for their crimes against humanity," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democratic sponsor of the bill.
Responding to the moves in Washington, Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, told Reuters, “we need internal stability to improve the country’s economy. Imposing international sanctions directly affects the people in travel and in business investments, and there are many bad consequences.”
Myanmar officials would explain the government’s efforts on Rakhine during a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scheduled for Nov. 15, he added.
“We will explain to him what we are doing when he comes here. We can not tell him not to do that. And we don’t know what is US policy,” Zaw Htay said.
The fate of the legislation may rest in part with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime friend and ally of embattled Suu Kyi.
The two politicians spoke by telephone in September, when she assured McConnell she was working to get aid to Rohingya Muslims.
McConnell defended the Nobel peace laureate after the call, warning that "publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, the best hope for democratic reform in Burma, is not constructive".
Suu Kyi has been hammered by the international community for failing to use her moral power to speak up in defense of the Rohingya.
On Thursday she visited Rakhine for the first time.
McConnell's office said the Republican leader was reviewing the sanctions legislation. As Senate leader, McConnell determines which bills get to the floor for a vote.