The Lives of the Rohingya Rest in Mitch McConnell's Hands

March 12, 2018

Photo by maruf1122345 (CC0 1.0)
Photo by maruf1122345 (CC0 1.0)

In February, the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with wide bipartisan support. Multiple Senate offices and outside stakeholders received assurances from Majority Leader McConnell that it would be hotlined and expedited for a floor vote. Last week, however, McConnell abruptly changed his mind and stopped the bill in its tracks, without registering his opposition on the record. It’s critical that his obstruction doesn’t go unnoticed, with the lives of the Rohingya people hanging in the balance, and the measure's passage resting squarely in his hands.

The bill, introduced by Senators McCain and Cardin would bring targeted sanctions against senior Burmese military officials responsible for the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people, as well as authorize nearly $104 million in humanitarian assistance to the region. It would also rescind the U.S.'s support for any international financial assistance projects that involve the Burmese military.

In short, the bill acknowledges and finally begins addressing a horrifying reality that has been glaringly apparent to all international observers for years: an ongoing genocide in which the Burmese military has been systematically murdering, raping, and expelling hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people from their homes and then burning entire villages to the ground. That mass atrocities have taken place and continue on a daily basis is not an opinion subject to debate but a statement of established fact.

A likely reason for Senator McConnell's hesitancy in allowing this legislation to move forward is his consistent support for Burma's State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed, he is not alone in his support for the Nobel Prize winner and former political prisoner. American policymakers across the political spectrum (including President Obama) hung their hopes on Suu Kyi’s deliverance of the country into a new age of democracy. And while serious questions abound over her silence and implied complicity in the atrocities carried out by her own nation's military (just this week, the Holocaust Museum rescinded its support for her), this specific legislation spares her civilian government of any direct consequences. This bill is not about Suu Kyi -though maybe it should be- and a fear of indirectly offending her must not override the need to hold the Burmese military accountable for mass genocide.

Last week, the Burma Task Force and allies, including MPAC, spent a day on the Hill meeting with legislators and sharing their stories. All of them have countless family members and friends whose lives have been ruined or ended by the murderous Burmese military. Their message was simple: the United States must not stand idly by while an entire population of their loved ones is being murdered to extinction.

Senator McCain, Senator Cardin, and dozens of their colleagues from both sides of the aisle have stepped up to ensure we don’t once again fall on the wrong side of history. It’s time for Mitch McConnell to do the same.



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