MODERATOR: Thanks very much. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s on-background call on the State Department’s designation of Burmese military officials as ineligible for entry into the United States due to their involvement in gross violations of human rights, including in northern Rakhine State, Burma.
Joining us today are [Senior State Department Official One], who will be referred to as Senior Department Official Number One. Also with us is [Senior State Department Official Two], who will be referred to as Senior Department Official Number Two. Just a reminder that today’s call is on background and embargoed until the call is complete. I’ll now turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number One, who will open our call with brief remarks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Moderator]. This is [Senior State Department Official One]. The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Burma, especially in conflict-affected areas in Rakhine State, as well as other violence-affected areas across the country such as Kachin and Shan states.
It’s now nearly two years after the August 27 – August 25th, 2017 crackdown on Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State which was perpetrated by the Burmese security forces, and the Government of Burma and the military have made no progress on holding accountable those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
Although the commander-in-chief of the Burmese military, Min Aung Hlaing, cited the arrest, trial, and conviction of the soldiers who committed extrajudicial killings at Inn Din as evidence of the military’s commitment to accountability, those criminals were released considerably less than a year later on the CINC’s own orders, making a mockery of accountability for the military and its senior leadership. In contrast, the Reuters journalists who told the world about the killings in Inn Din were jailed for over 500 days.
Numerous credible international investigations, including those conducted by our government and by the United Nations, have detailed the grossly disproportionate violence, including ethnic cleansing, committed by security forces before and after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks on August 25th, 2017.
To date, the U.S. has taken a number of actions to promote accountability for these atrocities, including the sanctioning of five Burmese generals and two military units for serious human rights abuses in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states.
Today, the Secretary of State has announced publicly that the commander-in-chief of the Burmese military, Min Aung Hlaing; the deputy commander-in-chief, Soe Win; and commanders of the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions, Than Oo and Aung Aung, and their immediate family members have been designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2019 for their involvement in gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, against Rohingya, particularly from August through September 2017.
As many of you may know, Section 31(c) of the Appropriations Act provides that in cases where the Secretary of State has credible information that officials of foreign governments have been involved in significant corruption or gross violations of human rights, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.
These four senior officials are well-known to the international community to be responsible for gross human rights violations across the country, not only in Rakhine State but also in Kachin and Shan states over the past decade. They are specifically cited by the UN factfinding mission as being among the six senior officers bearing considerable command responsibility for human rights violations and crimes.
We designated two other generals in 2018, Lieutenant General Aung Kyaw Zaw and General Maung Maung Soe, back in 2018.
The announcement of today’s designations is the first governmental action publicly targeting the most senior leadership of the Burmese military, and that is, we are the first government in the world to publicly take action against these two individuals, the CINC and the deputy CINC. The department decided to publicize these designations based on information we received on these commanders’ involvement in horrific abuses and because the Burmese Government has taken no actions to hold accountable these individuals for the atrocities they’ve committed. Reports continue of members of the military committing gross human rights abuses throughout the country.
We believe these designations send a message to other Burmese officials that should they commit atrocities or other serious human rights abuses, there will be consequences under U.S. law.
The Burmese military has a proper role to play as a national defense force. However, under the command of Min Aung Hlaing, and often at his direct order, members of the Burmese military have committed appalling violations of human rights across the country. For the sake of his own reputation and that of the country, Burma’s military must cease such atrocities, hold those responsible to account, and pursue a path of reform.
The United States will continue to work with the international community to pursue accountability for gross human rights violations in Burman and promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms across the country. These efforts will continue to include bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with our partners and allies, including at the United Nations.
That’s it for my brief.
MODERATOR: We can open up the conversation to questions if there are any from our media colleagues.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you have a question, you may hit * 1. Our first question comes from the line of Shaun Tandon. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi, thanks for doing this call. I was wondering how you determined to go ahead with travel sanctions specifically. Often sanctions posed by the United States are dealing with people’s assets, for example. Is there a sense that this is something that will have an impact on the – on these generals in particular? And related to that, is there a way for them potentially too to get off this, I mean, if there are – if there is accountability that comes forward in the process?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks for the question. These sanctions are specifically within the authority of the Secretary of State, so we are able to exercise these on our own. Economic sanctions, such as those that have been posed against the other two generals, do require action by the Treasury Department and by the State Department. So in this case, we decided to use our own authorities to sanction these two individuals.
What is unique about these travel sanctions is that we are able to publicize the fact that we are doing so. Virtually all other visa sanctions are not publicly – or publicizable. So we have decided to publicize these as a way of indicating our determination that these four individuals are culpable for the atrocities that occurred in Rakhine State, as well as serious human rights abuses elsewhere.
And to my knowledge, there is no ability once these travel sanctions have been imposed for them to be revoked, although there is waiver authority accorded to the Secretary under these provisions, and it may be the case that that could be exercised later on. I don’t know whether my CA colleagues who are on the line could clarify that latter – the answer to that latter question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The designations themselves are based on the individual’s involvement in gross violations of human rights, so while that doesn’t change, there are waivers of the restrictions available. So for example, the Secretary is – the Secretary can waive the restrictions if he determines that there’s a compelling national interest in the individual’s travel.
MODERATOR: Hi. Just for everyone’s awareness, that last speaker was [Senior State Department Official Three], and he will be referred to as Senior State Department Official Number Three. Any other questions?
OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes from the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. A couple of questions. The first one is that the UN has asked for the – for Myanmar to prosecute for genocide the army chief. So far, the U.S. has only called this ethnic cleansing. What is preventing you from taking it one step and calling it genocide as the UN has claimed?
And number two, how do you – what do you expect of Myanmar to – when you say they need to be held accountable, what do you expect from them to do?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks for the question. First of all, on legal determination – further legal determination as to what these crimes constitute, I would note first that Secretary Tillerson did make a finding that these crimes amount to ethnic cleansing, which Secretary Pompeo has affirmed. The process for deciding whether and when to make this type of a determination is – has historically been reserved within the Executive Branch to the secretary of state.
He has not obviously come to the point at which he has decided to make a further determination. Generally, our policies are focused on changing behavior, promoting accountability. We’ve taken today’s actions with those goals in mind, and obviously, any decision to make a determination about – further determination about what these acts constitute would be made in conjunction with our own assessment of what the policy impact would be.
So just to make it clear, there’s no legal obligation to make any of these determinations. So typically, they are made when there is a view here at the department or within the U.S. Government that they will have a policy impact that we’re looking for.
In terms of accountability, indeed our first preference would be for the Government of Burma to hold any individuals responsible for atrocities, serious human rights abuses accountable within the Burmese judicial and legal system. That has not happened to date. I mentioned in my opening remarks that a few individuals were held – very low-ranking individuals were held responsible for some of the atrocities committed at Inn Din, but they were released not long thereafter, and there’s been no other person held accountable within Burma.
But that would be – our first preference, of course, would be for the Burmese Government to hold these sorts of individuals accountable.
MODERATOR: Next question, please.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Can I – [Senior State Department Official One], can I add something to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Please, [Senior State Department Official Two].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just to make one point clear, part of the problem, obviously, is that we would like to see the military take responsibility for what its members and its leadership have done. And that is the crux of the issue and that they are not taking any internal disciplinary action against their personnel, and because they are basically operating outside of any civilian authority in Burma, it is – it’s really only the military that can do anything about the atrocities committed by the military at this point. For this reason, we feel like it’s very important to send a message that the senior – we view the senior leadership of the military as responsible for the acts of the military.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and just as a reminder, that last speaker is [Senior State Department Official Two], and she should be referred to as Senior State Department Official Number Two.
Any other questions?
OPERATOR: Once again, if you have a question, you may hit *1 at this time.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much for participating, and just again, as a reminder —
STAFF: Oh, we have two questions lined up.
MODERATOR: You have two questions?
MODERATOR: Sure. We can take the two questions.
OPERATOR: Okay. We have a question from the line of Conor Finnegan with ABC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks very much for doing the call. I just wanted to ask about the timing of this. It’s been nearly two years now since the events that we’re talking about in August 2017. Why did you wait until today to make these designations? Was there some sort of new evidence that came to light? Or did you recognize that the situation hadn’t been changing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, first of all, I would again note that we – previously taken action against five other senior military officials and two military units. We did so, I believe, in two tranches over the past couple of years. Making this type of determination, particularly for a commander-in-chief, a deputy commander-in-chief, is a complicated one, requires evidence, and it has taken us a while to collect the necessary evidence to reach these determinations. As well, we are coming up on the second anniversary of the attacks that precipitated these atrocities in Rakhine State and we felt it was an important time to again demonstrate our interest in accountability, in promoting accountability, and doing what we can to hold those individuals responsible who committed these acts.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Shaun Tandon with AF Press. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. If there’s – nobody else is in queue, I thought I would – if you could indulge me with one more question. Senior Official Number Two touched on this, but I wanted to ask you explicitly: The role of the civilian leadership – Aung San Suu Kyi – she’s come under a lot of criticism for not speaking out more. Is she at all affected or is there any message sent to the civilian leadership by this, or do you see this as – purely as an issue with the military command?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We are targeting the military leadership because they are responsible in – on the basis, as [Senior State Department Official One] said, that we have evidence that says that they are responsible for the commission of these atrocities, therefore we – they are subject to these visa exclusions. The statute actually doesn’t give us a lot of latitude that – once we determine that someone meets the threshold for the statute, we have to exclude them, so just to kind of put that – to put that out there.
With regard to the civilian government, if we would like – we would like to see the kind of constitutional reform that would bring the military under civilian control, that would actually advance the democratization of Burma in a way that is not currently possible as long as the military controls 25 percent of the legislative seats, controls its own budget, controls its own – basically stands outside of all civilian control at this point and is a law unto itself, controls businesses and all of these things that allow it to operate basically autonomously from the civilian government. And so we have been engaged across the board – for decades the United States has been leading the fight to bring democracy, to support democratic change in Burma, and we continue to want to see that as the outcome here.
So we want to support civilian control of the military, effective civilian control of the military. We believe that that is the long-term solution to the terrible history of abuses that have been committed by this military since it’s been in control of the country.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Just to follow up on that one, did you believe that these actions could somehow impede the U.S. engagement with the civilian government as well as the military on some kinds of changes?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official Two], do you want to address, or want me to?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: However you want to do. Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official One].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just to start, I mean, I can imagine the commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief are not going to be finding – are not going to be happy about these determinations. We don’t have a particularly close relationship with them now, so we don’t see any significant changes on that. Our hope is that these actions will strengthen the hand of the civilian government, will help to further delegitimize the military – current military leadership, and can help the civilian government gain further control or gain control of the military in the way that [Senior State Department Official Two] described.
OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there, thanks for doing the call. I wanted to follow up on my colleague from ABC’s question. Did the rolling out of these designations coincide intentionally with the ministerial or was this coincidental?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have been working on this for some time, so I would say coincidental. I mean, it is a useful thing for us to be able to announce this or amplify this at the ministerial, but we have been working on this for some time and intended to do it regardless of the ministerial.
OPERATOR: And there are no further questions in queue.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you all very much for participating. Have a great afternoon, evening.