Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Myanmar is guilty of “ethnic cleansing” in its crackdown on minority Muslim Rohingya, driving more than half a million refugees to neighboring Bangladesh.
Although previously restrained in his description of the exodus, Tillerson said he’d concluded the violence warranted further investigation and possibly targeted sanctions.
The blunt language comes only a week after Tillerson met the country’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw. As the country’s de facto civilian leader, Suu Kyi has continued her steadfast refusal to acknowledge that the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has perpetrated the atrocities that reporters and human rights groups have been documenting for months.
How we got here
In late August, the military initiated a brutal crackdown against a rebel group known as the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) in the country’s Rakhine State, after they attacked a police outpost, killing 12. The ensuing violence has left untold numbers of Rohingya dead and led to the mass exodus of refugees.
The Trump administration has been criticized for being slow to respond to the violence. The U.N had made a similar declaration more than two months ago.
Violence against Muslims in majority Buddhist Myanmar has been a serious concern since 2012, after the country began its transition away from military rule. Similar atrocities were reported against Rohingya villagers after ARSA attacked a military outpost in October 2016.
Why it matters
The stronger language signals that the Trump administration, which has not been perceived as taking a great interest in human rights issues generally, is prepared to consider more significant, if largely symbolic, measures.
While not offering details, a State Department official explained that targeted sanctions would aim to punish individuals actually responsible for the crimes without penalizing the entire country, which already faces steep economic and governance challenges. The official said an arms embargo or broader sanctions in this context would only further weaken a country struggling to democratize and develop. Despite having a civilian parliament, the Myanmar military maintains veto power and significant control over the government.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as a condition of the briefing.
On the heels of President Donald Trump’s first major trip to Asia, where he vowed to break with past U.S. leaders and put “America First,” the move actually showed consistency with previous U.S. administrations: holding countries to account over international norms while also continuing to be engaged in their development and providing humanitarian assistance.
China has taken advantage of the Trump administration’s retrenchment in the region and will likely capitalize on this new break between Washington and Naypyidaw. After being rebuffed by Myanmar in 2011 when the military junta made its own pivot to the West, including the U.S., China has since worked to cultivate stronger relations with Myanmar. Beijing has offered its own plan to assist with the Rohingya issue but is doing so without public condemnations or demands for accountability, which strengthens China’s influence over countries in the region with authoritarian tendencies.
The article appeared in the Cipher Brief on 23/11/2017