Western Officials Ignored Myanmar’s Warning Signs of Genocide
U.S. and U.N. diplomats overlooked atrocity amid hopes of democracy.
One year ago, on Aug. 30, 2017, Myanmar’s military began a bone-crushing massacre against its Muslim Rohingya minority in the village of Tula Toli. Survivors told me they saw dismembered bodies floating in the river. Rape was widespread. An 11-year-old boy described watching soldiers burn his grandmother alive. Out of a population of around 1 million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar last year, more than 700,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh since last August, and an estimated 127,000 still live in squalid displacement camps inside Myanmar. An unknown number have been killed in the army’s assault on their villages.
On Aug. 27, the United Nations issued a powerfully worded report that found that crimes against humanity were committed and called for members of Myanmar’s military to be prosecuted for genocide. But the U.N. report also rightly condemned the international community’s approach to Myanmar—and the world body’s own failings.
“Systemic discrimination and crimes under international law occurred during a period of significant international engagement in Myanmar, and while the United Nations was supposed to be implementing its Human Rights Up Front Action Plan,” the report said.
Between 2012 and 2017, U.S. and U.N. reports warned that bloodshed was brewing. These warnings were disregarded or played down by officials who believed they could spur Myanmar’s transition from an authoritarian country to a democracy. But as diplomats negotiated with Myanmar’s military junta, the foundations for ethnic cleansing were being laid.
Myanmar maintains that the Muslim Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Prejudice against them is long-standing, but an inflection point came in May 2012, when tension between the ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya exploded. The resulting army clampdown forced 140,000 Rohingya into camps for displaced peoples.
The 2012 violence against the Rohingya “was for all intents and purposes Rakhine state’s Kristallnacht,” said a report by the International State Crime Initiative, referring to a turning point of anti-Semitism in 1930s Nazi Germany.
Yet senior U.S. officials did not recognize the extent of the violence or what it indicated for the future. In a June 19, 2012, cable that gave instructions to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office wrote that “the Burmese government’s initial response has been encouraging and constructive.” World leaders were focused on the country’s democratic transition. For at least two years, the State Department had been trying to spur Myanmar’s transition from a junta to a democracy. It developed a plan in close coordination with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now the de facto leader of Myanmar, to ignite the country’s democratic era. The idea was to kick-start the economy by gradually lifting sanctions to allow for more investment.
There were occasional warnings. In October 2012, then-U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell cabled to Washington after a visit to Rakhine, saying he found “the Rohingya community continues to suffer disproportionately and remains isolated, vulnerable and unable to access education, adequate healthcare or livelihoods.” But such cautions appear to have been ignored by an administration that saw the country as an example of President Barack Obama’s promise to extend a hand for those willing to unclench their fists.
Senior U.S. officials in Washington believed they were the catalyst for reform in Myanmar. In September, W. Patrick Murphy, then the State Department’s special representative to Burma, admiringly described the secretary’s 2011 trip to Myanmar as “Kissinger-esque,” a reference to America’s opening up of China during the Nixon administration. In her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton described U.S. diplomacy in Myanmar as America at its best but also warned that ethnic strife could undermine progress.
The United Nations saw the growing violence more clearly than the United States—but also more consciously ignored it. When the Canadian diplomat Renata Lok-Dessallien began her job as resident coordinator—the top U.N. official in Myanmar—in January 2014, the organization was going through a period of self-reflection. A bruising internal review of the U.N.’s role during the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, had found that the world body wilted in the face of government pressure and censored its own human rights reports.
In response, the U.N. launched a new strategy in 2013 called Human Rights Up Front. The idea was to stop mass bloodshed by wielding “moral courage” and “principled positions” in the face of wrongdoing.
The U.N. felt it could make up for its failures in Sri Lanka by supporting Myanmar’s transition to democracy and jump-starting the Up Front agenda, current and former U.N. officials said. Lok-Dessallien had a clear mandate to confront bad actors in the government, according to a dossier of internal emails and confirmed by interviews with current and former U.N. officials.
When the small town of Du Chee Yar Tan in Rakhine erupted in violence days after Lok-Dessallien arrived, it became a test case for the Up Front agenda. After fighting, several dozen Rohingya were massacred and another 8,000 displaced.
Michael Shaikh, a former U.N. official, said that when he investigated the massacre, there were people with gunshot wounds and gaping lacerations. “There was clear evidence that something terrible had happened,” he recalled. Armed with the new Up Front initiative, Lok-Dessallien pushed to make a statement that included information about how more than 40 people were killed in Du Chee Yar Tan. Shortly after the U.N. made a public statement on Jan. 23, the government denied the world body’s narrative.
Lok-Dessallien had a choice to make. She could stick with the Up Front principles and call out the government or let its narrative prevail. For hours, Lok-Dessallien went silent and “decompressed a bit,” as she texted her aide.
Shaikh and other U.N. officials said Lok-Dessallien decided not to confront the government and let its narrative of the Du Chee Yar Tan massacre prevail. Lok-Dessallien said the U.N.’s information was the result of a “major misunderstanding” in one text message to her top deputy, Caroline Vandenabeele.
During a dinner with senior U.N. officials from New York and Myanmar in September 2014, Lok-Dessallien claimed that “the Du Chi Yar Tan massacre never actually happened,” according to an email from a U.N. official who was present. Both current and former U.N. officials said Lok-Dessallien was primarily concerned with keeping a good relationship with the government.
Lok-Dessallien “totally succumbed to the pressure of maintaining that Myanmar had to be a human rights success story,” Shaikh said. “The U.N. system as a whole succumbed, from the secretary-general to the resident coordinator. It needed a political success in Myanmar to atone for its sins in Sri Lanka,” he added. “The writing was on the wall that something more tragic could easily happen. Du Chee Yar Tan proved to the Myanmar government that it could manipulate the U.N.’s self-inflicted paralysis in Rakhine. In hindsight, Du Chee Yar Tan was just a dry run.”
In early 2014, Lok-Dessallien texted a deputy that after “hitting” Myanmar’s government on human rights, she wanted to show the government a “warm hand” by boosting development aid. Lok-Dessallien said a U.N. statement should have “absolutely no demands, criticisms, lessons, etc. Accentuate the positives without sounding naive and blind to the challenges.” Lok-Dessallien signed off politely.
The idea, as with the State Department plan, was that economic prosperity would relieve Rakhine’s ethnic and religious tensions. But that plan required the U.N. to maintain a good relationship with the government—and the development money was going almost exclusively to the Rakhine people.
Later that year, Hanny Megally, the head of the U.N. human rights division in Asia, emailed Lok-Dessallien asking why she was not allowing staff to enter Myanmar to conduct human rights investigations. As the top U.N. official in the country, she could apparently block people from coming in and out. But instead of allowing the U.N. investigators in, Lok-Dessallien forwarded Megally’s email to an aide and suggested a special review of the human rights section’s work.
The U.N. and international community decided to collaborate with Myanmar’s government and find a solution for the 140,000 Rohingya trapped in squalid displacement camps. It became known as the Rakhine Action Plan and called for the Rohingya civilians in Rakhine to be registered by the government as “Bengali” citizens—a long-standing claim by the government that the group is not from Myanmar. Their identity as Rohingya would be erased.
Ayaki Ito, a top U.N official in Myanmar, warned in an internal email to Lok-Dessallien that there was a risk of the United Nations “becoming complicit to the commission of crime(s) against humanity,” if it followed the Rakhine Action Plan. Those who identified themselves as “Rohingya … would be interned in camps,” Ito warned. The plan continued anyway.
Vandenabeele, Lok-Dessallien’s top aide, ended her work in Myanmar in June 2015 and wrote an 11-page dissent memo addressed to top U.N. officials. She declined to speak on the record. Vandenabeele’s memo warned of “systematic shortcomings of the U.N. system in Myanmar” that created a “high risk of failure to prevent large scale violence—and possible crimes against humanity.” It was Sri Lanka all over again, she argued.
“I have repeatedly been instructed not to speak about the things I have witnessed or observed, or have been part of,” Vandenabeele wrote, saying she was speaking “truth to power … on behalf of many colleagues.” She underlined the key passage. “I am extremely concerned about a repeat of the systemic failures by the U.N. to prevent large scale violence as we have witnessed before.” She ended by warning that “it will be the people of Myanmar who will pay the price” for U.N. dysfunctionality.
Vandenabeele’s views were supported by others. Liam Mahony, a U.N. advisor, wrote a confidential report in 2015 that detailed how Myanmar “bears a striking resemblance to the humanitarian community’s systematic failure in the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka. … Self-censorship dominates nearly every advocacy decision.” He continued: “The U.N. Secretary General’s ‘Human Rights Up Front’ doctrine was aimed at helping the U.N. system and others learn from the mistakes of Sri Lanka … which for the most part are not being applied.”
Lok-Dessallien refused to comment and referred me to a spokesperson for the U.N., Stanislav Saling, who also declined an interview request. In a statement, Saling said the “U.N. has consistently focused on protection of human rights, peace agenda and inclusive development on behalf of all the people of Myanmar, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or citizenship status.”
Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi met inside the Oval Office one last time on Sept. 14, 2016. The United States was announcing that it would lift all economic sanctions on Myanmar. Obama’s foreign-policy advisor, Ben Rhodes, described to NPR how Myanmar’s transition to democracy was a bright spot for the administration.
By now, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, had won the elections, but the military junta still controlled the country’s political system through a veto-proof majority in the parliament.
Obama described Myanmar’s progress throughout his time in office as “remarkable.” Myanmar is “a good-news story in an era in which so often we see countries going in the opposite direction,” he said. There was no mention of the Rohingya.
While Obama was speaking, a shadowy insurgent group named Harakah al-Yaqin was gathering strength. Harakah al-Yaqin was a freshly formed Rohingya militia that had links to Saudi nationals, according to the International Crisis Group.
On Oct. 9, 25 days after the two Nobel laureates met in the Oval Office, Harakah al-Yaqin attacked three security posts across northern Rakhine state. The Myanmar military responded with what it called a “clearance operation,” establishing the patterns of mass violence it would deploy the next year.
Those in Myanmar saw it differently. In April 2017, an internal U.N. memo offered a scathing assessment of the organization’s inability to prevent future bloodshed. The report predicted mass violence would soon be triggered by another attack from the Harakah al-Yaqin group, which had rebranded itself as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA. The report warned the next attack could be the tipping point. “The Human Rights Up Front initiative implies the need for a coherent U.N. strategy on Rakhine that gives greater emphasis and priority than in the past to human rights,” the report said. “All the indications are that such an attack in the next six months should be regarded as a high-likelihood, high-impact event.”
Four months later, on Aug. 25, an ARSA attack on 30 police outposts prompted massive retaliation from the army on Aug. 30.
Myanmar’s generals and politicians bear the brunt of responsibility for the fate of their country. But the failure of the international community to act on warning signs was a serious diplomatic failure. Whether stronger warnings or a resumption of sanctions could have deterred Myanmar’s military from the path of genocide is unknowable. But the inability of U.S. and U.N. officials to see beyond the easy story of transition to democracy left the Rohingya friendless—and doomed.