Over the last two weeks, I have traveled to Myanmar and Bangladesh. This was my first visit back to Myanmar in more than five years. And while I am a chronic optimist, my visit offered grim confirmation of the dramatic deterioration of conditions in the country, especially for the Rohingya ethnic minority. These catastrophic conditions underscored the decline of U.S. leadership on human rights in this part of the world and globally.
I first travelled to Myanmar in 2010 as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Obama Administration. Over the next several years, my colleagues and I made multiple visits, pressing hard for progress on a range of human rights issues. By 2013, with the active support and engagement of President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton, there were some important successes, including helping to secure the release of more than 1,100 political prisoners, encouraging Red Cross access to the country’s prisons and the adoption of a range of labor law reforms. In 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won impressive voter support in national elections. Though constrained by a 2008 constitution which assures the military primary authority, the NLD assumed a greater share of political power in a new national government. The U.S. government applauded ambitious efforts by citizens seeking to address a series of longstanding regional conflicts between military leaders and minority ethnic communities, including the Rohingya but also the Kachin, Shan and Wa. This was a relatively hopeful time, as the country seemed to be slowly emerging from decades of harshly repressive military rule.
It was clear that reform would not come easily, as there were deep divisions within the government. On one side were reform-oriented officials who were supportive of change, at least in part because of their strong desire to get out from under U.S. and European sanctions, open the country to Western companies and investors, and reduce the country’s excessive reliance on the Chinese. On the other side were hard-line elements of the military who were determined to maintain absolute control, both of the political system and the extensive natural resources that are a key component of the economy. By 2012, it also was clear that longstanding tensions in Rakhine State were escalating. Members of the Rohingya were attacked by extreme elements of the Rakhine population, with the active support of government security forces. By the end of that year, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to neighboring Bangladesh, fearing for their lives.
A harbinger of things to come, these attacks came to a head last August, as soldiers and local police joined local extremists in an all-out assault on the Rohingya community. It is now well established that thousands of Rohingya homes were burned to the ground, scores of women were brutally raped and thousands more killed. More than 700,000 desperate refugees fled across the border and are now confined to refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.
All of these abuses were confirmed by the delegation from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in which I participated. Our delegation conducted interviews during our visit to Cox’s Bazar, the area where the refugees are now being sheltered. To its credit, the government of Bangladesh has provided shelter for these people, a major commitment from a country that has problems even feeding and housing its own people. But Bangladesh government officials said they are now preparing to move hundreds of thousands of the refugees to a major encampment on Bhasan Char Island , a fragile environment submerged in water during the summer monsoon season each year.
Though the Rohingya crisis is most massive and desperate, other minority communities, including the Kachin and Shan, also live in insecure environments in Myanmar because the government has yet to negotiate durable peace agreements with armed groups in those regions. Military leaders in these regions control natural resources-jade, oil and timber--and remain unwilling to engage in negotiations regarding future control of these resources.
But what was most striking about our delegation’s visit was the complete absence of U.S. leadership on any of these issues. Although U.S. officials have condemned the attacks against the Rohingya and other extreme abuses, the administration lacks an overarching diplomatic vision or plan of action. One U.S. official characterized the current approach as “small ball,” focusing on U.S.-funded training programs for civil society and the like. Because Myanmar’s military leaders are so resistant to change, U.S. officials appear to have decided to forfeit the application of maximum economic and political leverage. Absent from the U.S. government’s diplomatic agenda is a serious discussion of amending the 2008 constitution to allow for majority rule and civilian control of the military--changes that are central to meaningful reform. U.S. officials are also avoiding the issue of Burmese military accountability for the massive Rohingya abuses, a grotesque pattern of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Activists and others in Myanmar are desperate for stronger U.S. leadership and deeply disappointed by the “small ball” approach of the current administration. While there is widespread public attention to the declining U.S. leadership in NATO and vis-a-vis Russian, the U.S. failure to put its diplomatic muscle behind a strong human rights agenda in places like Myanmar may be the more devastating consequence of the president’s America First approach to global engagement.