It’s Time to Hold Myanmar Accountable
A year after the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya began, the United States is still dragging its feet.
The Holocaust. Rwanda. Bosnia. Darfur.
And now Myanmar, according to a new United Nations report, which accuses the country of carrying out a genocide. It is time for the United States and the world to act.
In 2017, Myanmar’s military began a ruthless campaign against Rohingya Muslims, killing thousands and displacing more than 700,000 to Bangladesh. Last week, a year after the massacres, the U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar found that the “crimes in Rakhine State [in Myanmar’s west], and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.”
Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, made the army’s intentions clear: “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem,” he said in a Facebook post during the crackdown. (In Myanmar, Rohingya are commonly referred to as Bengali, although they have lived in Myanmar for generations.) The newly released report recommends the “investigation and prosecution” of senior members of the Myanmar military to “determine their liability for genocide.”
This genocide took place against the backdrop of Myanmar’s recent steps toward democratic transformation. After decades of repressive military rule, the armed forces began freeing political prisoners, including opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and allowing economic and political reforms—and in 2015, the country held real elections. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, won control of the civilian government. Life in Myanmar seemed to be improving. But the democratization process did not reach everyone. The military retained extraordinary powers. And the Rohingya—long persecuted by the majority Buddhist population—remained outsiders, vulnerable to the cruelty of the government.
The United States supported the democratization process as the best way to promote broad-based progress in Myanmar. After decades of sanctions and isolation, the Obama administration decided to meet action with action, dropping sanctions and providing support for reform each time Myanmar took another positive step, with the intent of supporting the country as long as it remained on that path.
Today, it is clear that Myanmar is no longer on that path. Whatever good may be accruing for some there through the political reform process must not be bought with the price of genocide. The world must respond.
There is no guarantee that concerted international action can change Myanmar’s policies—but we must try. The crisis is ongoing, with hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps and thousands more in danger in Myanmar. And after standing by in the face of the crisis a year ago, the world is now also faced with establishing justice and showing Myanmar—and other countries—that genocide will be punished unequivocally, and that the country must change.
First, the United States must go to the U.N. Security Council to seek a global arms embargo on Myanmar, sanction top military officials, and demand equal legal protections for the Rohingya, the safe return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, and access to Rakhine by international nongovernmental organizations and the U.N.
Second, the United States should immediately make clear that the civilian government of Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi, will be held to account if it does not take these steps to improve the situation for the Rohingya soon. While the military is the prime mover of these atrocities, as the U.N. report put it, “Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
Third, Myanmar should be at the top of the agenda when the United States meets with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their semi-annual summit meetings in November. As the State Department official charged with steering the U.S.-ASEAN relationship on a daily basis for three years, I recognize this is a difficult task—ASEAN members will want to protect Myanmar from what they perceive as outside criticism, just as I watched the nations rally around Thailand after the 2014 coup. But these atrocities cannot be swept under the rug, and Muslim-majority ASEAN countries may be inclined to apply more pressure—Indonesia has already raised the issue, and Malaysia has now taken in more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees.
Fourth, the United States must fundamentally rethink its relationship with Myanmar. In May, Mark Green, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said of the Rohingya crisis, “This is a country that I think has tremendous potential. There’s an impediment to that work—and that is the crisis that we’re talking about—but we believe that in the long-term future we can address this impediment.” While a return to the international isolation of previous decades is unlikely to achieve results and should not be on the table, the United States can no longer act as though the Rohingya are but one of many issues Myanmar is struggling with as part of its reform process.
The international community should shun Myanmar’s military brass and work to ensure the benefits of economic assistance and trade do not go to the military’s coffers, and the United States should make clear that this will continue until persecution of the Rohingya ends.
The Trump administration has been behind the curve for a year and is likely to keep dragging its feet. Support for more pressure is growing in Congress, but many still fear weakening Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. Furthermore, many senior Trump administration officials view everything in Asia through a lens of competition with China, and the argument that the United States cannot lose influence in Myanmar is likely to hold sway. If the Trump administration does not move quickly, Congress may need to force the administration to act by moving legislation on its own, as it did when it passed sanctions on Russia over Trump’s objections in 2017.
Looking back, I believe that the United States was right to embrace Myanmar’s political transformation as a genuine opportunity that held promise to improve the lives of millions. The United States consistently pressed Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Rohingya in meetings and in public, but it is clear that it should have done more in the years prior to 2017. The United States failed miserably in responding to the horrors as they unfolded over the course of August and September 2017, when the latest crackdown began. It is difficult to know if a different U.S. policy at any point would have helped prevent the atrocities. But what matters today is that the United States must change course.
In my time working in the East Asia bureau at the U.S. State Department, I traveled many times to Myanmar and worked closely with colleagues in the civilian government as the country undertook its process of democratization. Citizens and officials I met wanted more reform, more openness, and more opportunities to engage with the United States. I wanted the country to succeed. I still want it to succeed.
But the Myanmar government has failed not only its Rohingya people—it has failed its entire population. For Myanmar to have a chance to succeed in the future, leaders must be held responsible, and policies must fundamentally change. The United States and the world should not rest until justice is done.