Human rights groups say a controversial border security force that was disbanded last week was about to be sanctioned by the United States Treasury.
The decision to abolish the force, which is widely referred to as Na Sa Ka and has been accused of human rights abuses, was announced by the President’s Office in a statement on July 14. “It is hereby announced that Border Area Immigration Control Headquarters has been abolished,” the statement said, referring to the group by its official name.
The statement gave no reason for the decision and presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut declined requests for comment.
But human rights groups based both in and outside Myanmar have told The Myanmar Times that US sanctions against the security force were “imminent” and the decision to abolish the force was likely taken to stop the sanctions from being put in place.
“There were plans afoot in Washington to list the Na Sa Ka on the [Specially Designated Nationals] list maintained by the US Department of the Treasury,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“A decision on that was imminent and obviously Burmese leaders in Nay Pyi Taw learned about this and decided to cut their losses by scrapping the unit,” he said, adding that he had been told this by people “in the know” in Washington.
Matt Smith of Fortify Rights International said he was not absolutely certain what the US was planning but agreed that “Na Sa Ka was being looked at closely by the US Treasury due to its abusive record, and was on the verge of being sanctioned”.
“This and other factors undoubtedly influenced Thein Sein’s decision,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Treasury said he could not comment on possible Treasury actions.
Andrew Leahy, a public affairs officer at the US embassy in Yangon, also declined to comment on Treasury operations.
He did say, however, that “sanctions are certainly designed to hold people accountable. The reason they’re in place is to target people who hinder the reform process.”
The allegations raise the question of how the President’s Office learned of the planned sanctions.
In Washington, however, activists say the impending sanctions were relatively common knowledge. In February, rights groups pushed for the sanctioning of controversial government bodies like Na Sa Ka at a Congressional hearing on Myanmar.
“We know this was the discussion because we’ve been pushing sanctions for the Na Sa Ka and regional commanders [to the US Treasury Department],” said Jennifer Quigley, the Washington-based executive director of US Campaign for Burma.
As the recent decision to sanction Lieutenant General Thein Htay for his involvement in arms deals with North Korea shows, the US is more than willing to add new entities to its targeted SDN list even as it allows US companies to invest in and trade with Myanmar.
Na Sa Ka was a unique organisation that brought together officials from the departments of immigration and customs, as well as members of the military.
Its mandate was limited to securing the border with Bangladesh in northern Rakhine State.
Over the past year and a half, the 1200-strong force was implicated in communal violence in Rakhine State, particularly the persecution and exploitation of the Muslim Rohingya, who are commonly referred to as Bengalis in Myanmar.
Ms Quigley described Na Sa Ka as the most “violent and corrupt” armed body in Myanmar.
While sanctions against specific commanders are still possible under US law, several sources said they were concerned that the move to abolish the force would protect the Na Sa Ka from investigation for the alleged rights violations.
“U Thein Sein’s decision was based on ... trying to short-circuit investigations of what the Na Sa Ka has done” and limiting public relations damage before his European trip, Mr Robertson said.
The 1200 members of Na Sa Ka have returned to their original organisations and a battalion of police have assumed the group’s duties along the border and at various checkpoints in northern Rakhine State.
It is not clear if the police will permanently take on this role and rights advocates expressed scepticism that the decision to abolish Na Sa Ka would lead to any improvements in the human rights situation in northern Rakhine State.
“In the absence of accountability, there is nothing to prevent the next security force from simply replicating Na Sa Ka’s abusive ways,” Mr Smith said.
Sittwe resident U Aung Win said he had not heard any reports of the police battalion engaging in the exploitation that Na Sa Ka was notorious for.
He said the most people were “very happy” to see Na Sa Ka disbanded, regardless of the motives behind the decision.