The Cable

U.S. Pulls Military Assistance to Myanmar Over Rohingya Abuses

But experts say the measures will have limited effect and could even backfire.

Members of a Myanmar military honor guard raise their bayonet-mounted rifles in a salute during a dawn flag-raising ceremony at Yangon's central Mahabandoola Park on Jan. 4. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of a Myanmar military honor guard raise their bayonet-mounted rifles in a salute during a dawn flag-raising ceremony at Yangon's central Mahabandoola Park on Jan. 4. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington announced it will end military aid to some Myanmar units involved in the forced displacement of the Rohingya minority, but experts say the move will have limited impact — and could even backfire on U.S. efforts to end the crackdown, which has driven more than 600,000 people from their homes.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States will not permit units and officers involved in operations in Myanmar’s Rakhine State — the homeland of the Rohingya and the epicenter of the atrocities — to receive or participate in any U.S. assistance programs. The United States rescinded invitations for senior Burmese security forces to attend U.S.-sponsored events and urged Myanmar to grant the international observers and media unrestricted access to the sites of alleged abuses.

The State Department is also considering targeted sanctions on Myanmar officers and officials linked to the atrocities.

“We are assessing authorities under the JADE Act to consider economic options available to target individuals associated with atrocities,” Nauert said, referring to the 2008 Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act.

The Donald Trump administration is struggling to respond to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya, which has cast a pall over the country’s democratic opening and emergence from decades of international isolation. After Naypyidaw permitted a limited political opening and pushed through some reforms, the United States lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2016.

While Nauert underscored the United States’ “continued support” for Burma’s democratic transition, patience with the crackdown is running thin.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States held Myanmar’s military leadership accountable for the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. officials are working on a recommendation for Tillerson to qualify the plight of the Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing,” a move that would increase pressure on the Trump administration to re-impose sanctions on Myanmar.

The Myanmar government, meanwhile, continues to imply that the Muslim Rohingya are not rightful citizens of the Buddhist-majority country, referring to them as “Bengalis,” while the country’s military leaders portray the Rohingya as sympathizers of Muslim extremism.

In the meantime, withdrawing U.S. military assistance is of limited use and could even be counterproductive, experts say.

“The Burmese military lived for decades under crippling sanctions,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington. With the United States having very few military ties to begin with, he said, the U.S. move is largely symbolic.

Rescinding ties with the military could actually reduce the United States’ leverage, said David Mathieson, a Yangon-based independent analyst. “Completely restricting what contact the United States can have with the security forces will make accountability difficult,” he said.

Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, said that ending the limited U.S. military assistance could make it harder to curb abuses.

“The only way you can really have leverage on the military is to do something with them, and the only way to really change or hope to change their ways is to engage them and show them different ways and show them different tactics,” he said.

Ultimately, as the United States looks for a way to aid the beleaguered Rohingya, reaching for sanctions may not be the best approach, Mitchell said. He called for an independent investigation to determine who was responsible for the alleged human rights violations.

“You don’t get solutions by sanctions. You get their attention, but the question is how you are going to get both justice for what’s happened as well as justice for the Rohingya. That should be the focus,” he said.

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. @MBourmont

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