Shadow Government

If Trump Forgets About Human Rights in Asia, the World Will Suffer

The United States ignores massive abuses at its own peril.

President Donald Trump greets Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak outside of the West Wing of the White House on Sept. 12. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump greets Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak outside of the West Wing of the White House on Sept. 12. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

On President Donald Trump’s marathon Asia trip, set to begin on Friday, he will meet with a diverse slate of leaders, many of whom are overseeing the degradation of political freedom in their countries and others massive human rights abuses. While democracy has been receding in Southeast Asia for several years, this has largely been a quiet, incremental story. However, with the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, this dynamic is now hitting the headlines. As Trump prepares to meet with these countries’ leaders, he should recognize that the societies these leaders represent, whose views on the United States will be important for U.S. interests over the long-term, will be watching his actions and words closely.

Unfortunately, Trump seems unlikely to address issues of democracy, human rights, and governance — his pattern of inviting autocratic, corrupt rulers to the White House is a testament of this. Thus far, his “America First” tagline translates to a more transactional foreign policy, with no room for standing up for human rights and democracy. And taking a sledgehammer to the State Department’s budget hasn’t helped either. It’s no surprise that 72 percent of Southeast Asians believe that the U.S. image has been tarnished in the region since Trump took office.

While Trump is ignoring a wide range of Asia human rights issues, his most prominent blind spot is in Myanmar. Since the end of August 2017, the Myanmar military has embarked upon an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Rohingya Muslims. While the death toll is still unknown, about half a million Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh refugee camps. Deteriorating conditions within the camps have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, and the level of displacement and destruction will reverberate throughout the region and around Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future, potentially with global consequences. The absence of a high-level U.S. push to address the crisis is making clear that there will be few costs for Myanmar if it continues the violence, aside from discontinuing minimal military exchanges, and that the current U.S. administration cares little about human rights.

Elsewhere, Trump’s pattern of appreciation for strongman-type leaders and failure to condemn their destabilizing actions is undermining U.S. strategic interests. In addition to traveling to Manila on this trip, Trump has also invited Duterte to the White House, essentially glorifying his unjustified killing of thousands of drug dealers and users. The extent of Duterte’s war on drugs range from estimates of 3,000 deaths, but reaches as high as 13,000 when including non-government vigilantes. Thousands of arrests have contributed to an environment of fear and instability. Duterte’s popularity appears to be slipping slightly, however — a new study cites his “net trust rating” having fallen from 75 to 60 percent , or excellent to very good. Right now, the United States is cozying up to a leader ruthlessly violating the rule of law, and if Duterte’s popularity slips lower — as it has for all recent presidents of the Philippines after long honeymoon periods — the United States will find itself associated with an unpopular, authoritarian leader.

Likewise, last month Trump hosted Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House and thanked him for “all the investment you’ve made in the United States.” Razak is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly diverting $1 billion dollars from a Malaysian government fund to his personal bank account.

Trump also welcomed to the White House Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the country’s 2014 military coup. Despite promises of an eventual return to democratic rule, the persecution of the opposition and censorship of the press and speech continue to be the prevailing norms of the Thai political system. Of course, Trump didn’t bring any of this up when Prayuth visited; rather, he focused on the potential for more trade with Thailand.

Below Washington’s radar, in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of 2018 elections, orchestrated the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha and is in the process dissolving the main opposition party on spurious legal grounds. There has also been an assault on civil society in recent months. Most prominently, the Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down based on politically motivated accusations that it owed millions dollars of taxes after the paper’s extensive coverage of Sokha’s arrest.

To demonstrate that the United States still stands for openness, democracy, and good governance, at a minimum Trump should highlight these issues on his trip.

First, Trump should address the gravity of the situation in Myanmar during the U.S.- Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and dedicate American resources and efforts to aid the growing humanitarian crisis. A U.S.-led condemnation of the atrocities, in partnership with other countries in the region, is critical. Second, he should meet with civil society leaders and use the opportunity to remind political leaders of the importance of democratic values and the economic benefits they bring — and that the United States cares.

Whether Washington publicly stands for human rights and democracy matters. For the sake of both the plight of individuals in the region and for U.S. national interests, the Trump administration must not cede this ground.

Michael H. Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2013 to 2016, he was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Shannon McKeown is an intern on the Asia team at the Center for American Progress.

Brian Harding is director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress.

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