Myanmar Rescinds its Democratic Promise

James Nguyen
October 18, 2017

The Rohingya crisis enveloping Myanmar and the region is worsening by the day, but help is not in sight. Most worrisome is the blatant disinterest shown by the United States for Myanmar’s crackdown on its Muslim minority. After years of Washington promoting democratic reforms in the country, a condemnation of Myanmar’s conduct, or help in mitigating the refugee crisis, cannot be expected from President Trump. With the UN having previously denounced the state-sanctioned attacks against the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Trump’s decision to disengage from Southeast Asia means that Myanmar is quickly backsliding from democracy to its old ways of autocracy and human rights abuses.

It is a shame that things have escalated this far. Until very recently, Myanmar was rightfully hailed as one of President Obama’s major foreign policy successes. The country’s military dictatorship officially ended in 2012 when the first multiparty elections were held, and President Obama was fundamental in insisting that the country’s President at the time, former general Thein Sein, continue to pursue reforms of the political system and the Constitution.

Crucially, Obama also kept the pressure on Myanmar to end the systemic prosecution and killing of the Rohingya people throughout his tenure, arguing that the Rohingya’s rights had to be taken seriously if Myanmar hoped to complete its democratic transition successfully.

The military regime that had ruled Myanmar since 1962 effectively excluded them from Myanmar’s concept of taingyintha, or “national races,” the lynchpin of the state’s official discourse of which ethnic groups belong to it. Consequently, they were ejected from mainstream society, banning Rohingya from legal employment, education, and basic health services. They could not marry or even travel without the government’s approval.

When Aung San Suu Kyi finally rose to power in 2015, she was considered the face of democracy and the start of a new era, which the US welcomed by lifting all sanctions against Myanmar. However, not much is left of that image now. Amid the crackdown that is increasingly resembling a purge of an unwanted ethnic minority, Suu Kyi not only failed to openly condemn these crimes. She also disallowed a UN fact-finding mission to investigate accusation of killings, rape, and torture by security forces against Rohingya in Rakhine state. In a twist that is at once ironic and concerning, she has come to employ the former junta’s rhetoric when she referred to the Rohingya as terrorists and derided Western reports of violence as “fake news”. While it can be assumed that her behavior and inaction is in part the result of pressure from the still powerful military, it is clear that Myanmar is once again on the road to autocracy.

At any other time in the past, Washington would have been of the loudest critics of the events in Myanmar. However, the Trump administration has been refusing to step in and put pressure on the government by re-imposing sanctions. Instead, the White House merely issued a lukewarm statement without naming the Rohingya directly, calling “on Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities.” That was followed by a statement made by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said that “The president is very concerned about Burma” in a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. This readiness to stand idly by and refusal to take any principled stance is not surprising – it is completely in line with Trump’s stated goal to undo his predecessor’s achievements.

With the US out of the picture, other countries in the region should be picking up the slack, but so far, only Bangladesh, which is receiving the majority of the more than 500,000 refugees, has spoken out in earnest against Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. In fact, it has quickly become clear that Bangladesh’s criticism makes it unique among countries in the region as they cannot be counted on to intervene. Quite to the contrary. As many countries in the neighborhood have ongoing human rights issues with minorities of their own, the united front in support of Myanmar’s actions is stronger than ever.

China, despite its claims to be a responsible global player, proved once again that it is anything but when it openly endorsed Myanmar’s military action in the Rakhine state. The reason is that China has been cracking down on its own Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. While the destruction wrought on the Uighurs has not reached the same scale as in Myanmar, Beijing has severely restricted the population’s freedom to practice its religion, limiting access to mosques and forcing restaurants to stay open during Ramadan. Through imposing Beijing’s official historical narrative on the province, China has been trying to erase Uighur identity, culture and history. And just like Myanmar, China considers its Muslim minority terrorists, meaning that Beijing’s sympathies with Myanmar were neatly aligned from the beginning.

Another prominent regional player, Vietnam, also decided to staunchly support its long-term ally. Although fulfilling a prominent role in Obama’s Asia strategy that raised its regional weight in the process, Hanoi has historically defended Myanmar’s policies against the backdrop of its own record of mistreating minorities. Since the Vietnam War, Hanoi has heavily discriminated against the Lai Dai Han, mixed-race children born as the result of rape of Vietnamese women by South Korean soldiers. The topic is sensitive for both Vietnam’s and South Korea’s governments, because Seoul still refuses to acknowledge the brutal sexual assaults committed against tens of thousands of women by its soldiers. However, with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calling for a high-level inquiry into the matter, it appears as though both countries will have to face up to that dark part of their history soon.

Nevertheless, the absence of America’s positive influence will be felt for year to come. For Rohingya communities on the brink of extermination, as well as for other systematically repressed groups, firm action of solidarity from Washington would have meant a lot. Unfortunately, the current American leadership itself has been pushing for exclusionary policies towards those it deplores. So far, Myanmar’s government can breathe a sigh of relief, for Washington will not to stop it.