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As Myanmar Cracks Down on Rohingya, Washington ‘Asleep at the Switch’

As Myanmar Cracks Down on Rohingya, Washington ‘Asleep at the Switch’

The brutal repression of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority by state security forces has sparked a massive refugee crisis in recent weeks but so far has elicited little response from the United States.

Nearly 313,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh as fighting intensified between government forces and Rohingya militants, according to the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR.

It’s not just refugees: Thousands are also dying. Last week, the U.N. placed the Rohingya death toll at more than 1,000, while Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, who said the attacks amounted to genocide, said it could be as high as 3,000. The displacement and killing of the Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority in the majority-Buddhist Southeast Asian country — is a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing, said Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also labeled the violence as ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

In the midst of this, the United States is walking a diplomatic tightrope, trying to balance criticism of Myanmar’s repression against its minority Rohingya population without jeopardizing its relationship with Naypyidaw as it seeks to shepherd the country through a pained democratic transition.

The State Department has issued boilerplate statements about the growing humanitarian crisis, but neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has publicly condemned Myanmar’s government. “The White House is deeply troubled by the ongoing crisis in Burma,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday, noting the White House’s concern about violence on both sides. 

In contrast, previous administrations took on a more engaged role with Myanmar, beginning with a ban on the export of financial services and freezing assets of certain institutions following a military coup in 1988. Bans on investment and imports followed over subsequent years.

“The State Department looks like they are going through the motions while the White House is asleep at the switch,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

The Trump administration’s top strategic priority on Myanmar is its democratic transition, Patrick Murphy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, told reporters in a phone briefing on Sept. 8. In the short term, it’s pressuring Myanmar to reopen humanitarian and media access to the Northern Rakhine state, the epicenter of the violence.

Run by a military junta between 1962 and 2011, Myanmar was until recently one of the most isolated countries in the world, until it began embarking on a timid process of political liberalization in 2010. That secured recognition and high-profile visits from the Barack Obama administration. Following a 2011 goodwill mission to Myanmar by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States announced it would soften restrictions on investment, before lifting all of its remaining economic sanctions in 2016 in recognition of Myanmar’s “substantial advances to promote democracy.”

Washington, Murphy said, has forged a strong partnership with the government during the still troubled transition to democracy.

“That doesn’t mean we withhold our concerns and our criticisms when warranted,” Murphy said. “And indeed now we are calling for a cessation of the violence and tensions that tend to lead to violence.”

But Myanmar’s crackdown itself threatens that democratic transition. The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in a statement Friday that a humanitarian catastrophe ensuing from blanket repression of the Rohingya would undo any democratic progress achieved by Myanmar thus far.

Even though parts of the Rohingya population do sympathize with the militants, the ICG said, targeting the whole population would only serve to legitimize the violence committed by militants while jeopardizing political stability in the region. “The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable,” the ICG said.

And after five years of steady diplomatic outreach, Washington has some leverage with Myanmar’s leaders, not least the military and with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said Robertson of Human Rights Watch. He suggested that increasing pressure on the commander of Myanmar’s armed forces to stop ethnic cleansing or “pay a steep price in military, diplomatic, and economic terms.” The U.S. Defense Department could suspend military cooperation with the regime until violence stops and international monitors can investigate, he said.

Meanwhile, across the border, the exodus of refugees is straining camps to the breaking point, with little end in sight.

“We need to prepare for many more to come, I am afraid,” said Shinni Kubo, the Bangladesh country manager for UNHCR. “We need huge financial resources. This is unprecedented. This is dramatic. It will continue for weeks and weeks.”

Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images