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America’s Myanmar Mistake

Photo courtesy of Andrew Mercer

By Rachel Wagley
November 5, 2015

If Rwanda was Bill Clinton’s greatest regret and Darfur was George W. Bush’s, Myanmar may well become President Barack Obama’s. U.S. Myanmar policy, occasionally praised as one of Obama and Hillary Clinton’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments, is flavored by willful blindness toward the government’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar citizens will cast their ballots on November 8th in an election that excludes 800,000 Rohingya voters, dozens of Muslim candidates, and a host of other minorities. Even Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has refused to run Muslim candidates. After a summer-long media onslaught on the great promise of the country’s “free and fair elections,” the news is catching up: in Myanmar’s elections, people of certain ethnicities and religions are less equal than others.

The election is perhaps least fair for the stateless Rohingya. At the moment, 140,000 of them are wasting away in ghettos and internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine State. They have little hope of returning to their land and businesses, which have been effectively confiscated, and they are at the mercy of the country’s ruthless security forces.

In fact, reports from the Yale Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, the International State Crime Initiative, and an Al Jazeera investigation have concluded that there is strong legal evidence for classifying persecution against Rohingya as state-sponsored genocide.

Lamentably, this classification may not matter—at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned. Rohingya are already widely considered victims of ethnic cleansing. By 2013, the human rights community had begun hinting at genocide, after leaked draft legislation and regional orders revealed that the Myanmar government and military were actively engaged in restricting the Rohingya’s most basic rights.

However, in Washington, few are willing to use the term “genocide.” They worry that, if they do, they will not be taken seriously, particularly since the U.S.-Myanmar relationship is considered such a success story.

Given the lack of concern the issue is receiving, it is not surprising that the U.S. government has done little to ease the Rohingya’s plight. Tolerance programs at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, paltry amounts of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, and admonishments against religious discrimination are about all the U.S. has offered to the country, which has been rocked by an ethno-religious identity crisis since violence broke out in Rakhine State in mid-2012.

The Obama administration has avoided identifying the crisis as ethnic cleansing and has not acknowledged the government’s active role in perpetuating systematic persecution. The administration often frames the Rohingya situation as a “challenge” that has arisen from “hate speech” caused by the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression and by the Race and Religion Protection Laws that undercut the government’s “efforts to promote tolerance, diversity, and national unity.”

But the government’s lifting of some restrictions on basic freedoms of speech and expression is hardly the cause of violence, be it “intercommunal” or state sponsored. The Rohingya cleansing is not a natural consequence of a transition to democracy, but a consequence of the government’s discriminatory policies and violence.

Ethno-religious violence has been a favorite direct and indirect tool of the military regime since the 1960s, and the current government remains adept at silencing “hate speech” on topics against its interests. The Myanmar government has led a sustained, targeted campaign against the Rohingya for decades including through the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, the 1982 Citizenship Law, and particularly horrific episodes of violence since 1978. Given this history, it is utterly impossible—despite the Obama administration’s best efforts—to see the Myanmar government as an agent of tolerance, diversity, or national unity.

Outside of the Obama administration, some politicians have tried to hold the Myanmar government accountable for its abuses. A bipartisan group on Capitol Hill, including Senators Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, Bob Corker, and Ben Cardin, has realized the culpability of the government, writing a bill to limit full U.S. engagement with a country at war with its minorities. In Myanmar, well-institutionalized violence and discrimination are rooted in a Buddhist-Burman nationalism that continues to rationalize state attacks on minority groups across the country. This is precisely why no number of tepid and toothless admonishments from a half-hearted U.S. will ever end the Rohingya’s torment.

More recently, in October 2015, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes traveled to Myanmar to discuss “U.S. expectations” of the upcoming election. However, those “expectations” remain unclear—and so far they seem to be largely nonexistent. Already, the Myanmar government has disenfranchised the Rohingya, excluded Shan and Kachin townships from elections, blocked overseas advance voters, and refused to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president.

Rather than clarifying that a Muslim-free election won’t be taken seriously by the leader of the free world, the Obama administration has through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems provided funds to Myanmar’s Union Election Commission— which banned Rohingya parliamentarians from running. Some Obama administration officials have even said that the U.S. will view the election as legitimate as long as the Myanmar people do.

That argument is disingenuous at best. It ignores the basic criteria for credible elections and the evidence that many people are already being excluded from voting. Moreover, it discounts the chorus of civil society voices speaking out for plurality and religious tolerance in Myanmar.

There is assuredly an argument to be made that extending an open hand to Myanmar’s leaders without focusing on human rights could be a way to eventually lead the country to act as a responsible state. But minimizing the Rohingya’s plight as a mere human rights issue, rather than taking seriously the likelihood of a state-sponsored genocide, may stop the White House from developing a coherent plan of action. This could give Myanmar time and space to conduct a partial extermination of the Rohingya.

Some hold flickering hope that the NLD’s anti-Muslim stunt was just a political one. They hope that the party will sweep the election and somehow demonstrate the political resiliency and capacity to fight back against the nation’s powerful police and security forces, dogmatic government officials and parliamentarians, and Rakhine extremists for the sake of 800,000 disenfranchised Rohingya the international community has already written off. It may be possible, but without a little moral, principled, and honest support from the U.S., we may soon be talking about Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy regret.

Rachel Wagley is the Director of Government Relations and External Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), where she leads NBR’s outreach, congressional publications, and communications. Rachel previously served as Policy Director of U.S. Campaign for Burma. Her commentary has been featured in numerous outlets, including the Emory International Law Review, NBR, Policy Forum, New Mandala, Foreign Policy Democracy Lab, Radio Free Asia, Global Post, and Voice of America. Rachel graduated cum laude with high honors in field from Harvard University. After completing her studies, she received a Fulbright grant to research and teach in Uttaradit, Thailand. She has worked extensively with Southeast Asian refugees, and she speaks Thai. You can follow her on Twitter at @RachelWagley.

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