We should not forget how the US under the Obama administration helped create the current situation of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
On August 25, 2017, insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) killed security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In response, Myanmar’s military poured into Rakhine and brutalized civilians, triggering the exodus of more than 500,000 Rohingya. While the crisis has drawn recent criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the issue, we should not forget how President Obama’s decisions helped create the current situation.
Since the 12th century, the Rohingya have inhabited Rakhine. During British rule, Bengali laborers migrated to Rakhine, drawing the ire of the indigenous ultra-nationalist Buddhist majority. Following independence, Myanmar imposed draconian legal restrictions and refused to recognize Rohingya as citizens. Today, 1.1 million Rohingya (mostly Muslim) remain stateless and live in makeshift camps lacking basic amenities, and nearly 1 million have fled Myanmar.
In 1989, the U.S suspended Myanmar’s trade benefits in response to human rights violations and violent suppression of democratic protests. But in the wake of Myanmar’s 2015 democratic elections, release of political prisoners, and recognition of some civil liberties, President Obama lifted these sanctions last year. “The situation that gave rise to the national emergency with respect to Burma has been significantly altered by Burma’s substantial advances to promote democracy,” President Obama wrote on October 7, 2016.
But President Obama’s short-sighted policy decision ignored the long developing tension between Myanmar and the Rohingya. In fact, President Obama seemed unwilling to implement policies to protect the Rohingya. His September 2016 joint statement failed to mention the Rohingya, and his December 2016 joint statement quietly announced the removal of sanctions against Myanmar because of an “improved” human rights situation. Human Rights Watch decried this latter act by President Obama as especially “astounding” considering the unprecedented violence unleashed upon the Rohingya by Myanmar troops in October 2016 after ARSA killed nine border police.
During the course of his administration, President Obama issued tepid public statements about the Rohingya: they were “treated differently”, “discriminated” against (or “[faced] discrimination”), “oppressed”, and “looked down upon and whose rights are not fully being protected.” Once referring to their plight as “persecution,” he never labeled it as ethnic cleansing.
This despite widespread accounts of murder, torture, razing of villages, rape, the slaughter of children and Human Rights Watch (HRW) and UN reports declaring that Myanmar was guilty of ethnic cleansing.
More troublingly, the Obama administration never pressed Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, on her 2013 statement regarding the Rohingya: “It’s not ethnic cleansing.” When an American delegation arrived in Burma on November 15, 2016 to discuss de-sanctioning, it never mentioned the Rohingya. This despite the meeting occurring when Burma suspended UN aid to Rohingya refugees.
With de-sanctioning granting Myanmar special trade status, America lost leverage over Myanmar’s military elite, which retained 25% of parliament seats; families of military officers— some implicated in human rights abuses—also gained access to American companies. Myanmar’s jade industry, annually amassing $30+ billion, also gained American buyers. But drug lords and military elite netted most of the profits. Jade sales, in turn, helped sustain ethnic conflict and the military’s influence—further perpetuating the Rohingya’s plight. De-sanctioning ensured that the military retained veto power over the civilian government. “Even without the most recent violence,” John Sifton, HRW Asia policy director, said, “the last thing the U.S. government needs to do is give up more leverage over the Burmese military.” Furthermore, America lost leverage over the civilian government, also complicit in the denial of Rohingya’s rights. Ultimately, de-sanctioning underscored President Obama’s systematic miscalculation of looking at human rights through the lens of trade.
Some may see President Obama’s decision to lift sanctions against Myanmar last year as part of his larger “Asian Pivot” strategy to curb China’s influence in the region. De-sanctioning Myanmar was President Obama’s best option among a limited set, so the argument goes. Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications to President Obama, intimated as much: “How do we balance the need to continue to demonstrate that this transition is not complete with the fact that we don’t want to shut ourselves and responsible investment out of [Myanmar]?”
But drawing on the success of sanctions imposed against Libya, former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Angola and South Africa, President Obama could have employed smart sanctions, thereby being more selective in the access Myanmar was granted to the world economy while also curbing Chinese influence. Sanctions are most effective when enjoying multilateral support. Experts note that “blacklisting” of major banks and corporations proved to be the “biggest hurdle” for American companies to do business in Myanmar. De-sanctioning also allowed non-American companies in Myanmar to more easily secure financing because international banks would be less afraid of being levied fines for violating U.S. sanctions.
The Trump Administration has employed more forceful rhetoric in underscoring the plight of the Rohingya than the Obama administration ever did. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the first major American diplomatic figure to expressly condemn Myanmar’s military and use the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the situation. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley recently stated that the Myanmar government has a responsibility to not abuse the Rohingya nor block aid, and she called on action against Burmese security forces who are implicated in abuses of the Rohingya. And Katina Adams, a State Department spokeswoman, said America was discussing the human rights crisis with Myanmar “at the highest levels.”
President Trump can intervene on the Rohingya’s behalf and correct a fundamentally misguided U.S. policy towards Myanmar. His administration’s rhetoric must be tethered to an effective strategy that prioritizes the human rights of the Rohingya above any long-term interests in trade and investment. That’s a tall order for a president who has a penchant for deal-making above else. But should he fail, he will have only vindicated his predecessor’s shortcomings.