Tags: trump | pence | myanmar | rohingya

Trump Administration Should Break With Obama-Era Myanmar Policy

Trump Administration Should Break With Obama-Era Myanmar Policy

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) holds a bilateral meeting with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore on November 14, 2018. (Bernat Armangue/AFP/Getty Images)

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Monday, 05 August 2019 04:59 PM Current | Bio | Archive

If there is one foreign policy area where the Trump administration has fallen far too short on living up to its promise, that would be Myanmar.

It is true that the state department has recently sanctioned the top echelons of the Burmese army for human rights violations. So did the treasury last year. But these responses appear to be more symbolic than punitive compared to what the situations in the country warrant. Therefore, the Trump administration should seize the opportunity and fill in the leadership vacuum that currently exists on what constitutes arguably the worst human rights violation in recent history.

Before assessing options for the United States, it is essential to revisit what is happening in Myanmar.

Since it gained independence from Britain after the second world war, Myanmar has been mired in ethnic conflicts in several states, including in Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, and Shan. Of them, the situations in Rakhine state are the most horrendous. Myanmar’s military that has been ruling the country for almost six decades amended the constitution in 1982, rendering the Rohingya people, predominantly Muslims, practically stateless. They cannot own land, vote, travel, or even marry, among other restrictions.

State-sponsored persecutions of the Rohingya people forced them to flee the country and seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh sporadically. However, the worst came in 2017 when the Tatmadaw, Myanmar Armed Forces, launched a brutal campaign against the Rohingyas in response to what the military said Rohingya insurgent attacks on police checkpoints.

Since then close to 760,000 Rohingyas escaped the country, joining the tens of thousands who had already been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, thereby creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. Although the international community initially thought of it as ethnic cleansing, it quickly; and, rightly so, described the atrocities as genocide.

But there is one anomaly. The United States. The very country that should champion the inalienable rights of the Rohingyas — and all those suppressed by the Burmese junta — is not as vocal. Worse, the Trump administration, for some mysterious reasons, is still vacillating whether to designate the mass atrocities in Myanmar as “genocide” even though the U.S. House of Representatives called it as such in a resolution passed in December.

There are indications that suggest the state department is divided over this issue, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemingly aligning with his legal and Southeast Asian divisions. They fear Myanmar may not be able to continue its reforms if it is punished. They also contend that any pressure on the country will only play into China’s hands. Beijing was the erstwhile pariah state’s only major backer and is unwilling to let go of the strong footholds that it has gained thus far. The Southeast Asian country is situated in a region of geostrategic import, and, therefore, it is only prudent for Washington to deepen ties to the Burmese government.

Some also like to point out the economic potentials of friendship with Myanmar. The country’s untapped market is a lucrative destination for U.S. businesses. Myanmar sits on a massive natural gas reserve. It is also rich in minerals. Many in the United States believe that Chinese companies should not enjoy unfettered access to Myanmar’s natural resources. The United States must challenge China in its sphere of influence.

These arguments are not without merit. One of the core tenets of American foreign policy has been the protection and expansion of U.S. commerce interests. When a strategic rivalry with a peer is added to the mix, it becomes all the more important for Washington to invest in a relationship. Myanmar ticks all these boxes.

Despite all, it appears concerned people at the state department tend to attach more importance to Myanmar than what it actually deserves. The Burmese junta has committed crimes against humanity, rendered close to a million Rohingyas stateless — and, subsequently, refugees. The longer this unresolved issue lingers, the more problematic it becomes for the United States. Armed conflicts, terrorism, and illegal immigration are to name a few.

Worse, the quasi-civilian government in Nay Pyi Taw has expressed no visible signs of remorse. It continues to flout international norms as Pompeo pointed out in his remarks while detailing the travel embargo on the army henchmen. Hardly any evidence shows the Burmese regime’s intention to reciprocate the generosity shown by the United States. Therefore, Washington should not give Myanmar — or any country — reason to believe that the incentives it offers are unsparing and unaccounted for.

President Barack Obama gave away the leverage over Myanmar, namely sanctions, that his successor could have benefited from. Perhaps he did that in a bid to help Myanmar unlock its potential or simply to leave a legacy for himself. However, it does not mean targeted sanctions should stay out of questions for an indefinite period.

Indeed, it is time Washington revisited its Myanmar policy and signaled preparedness to take meaningful actions in the absence of a lack of progress on the Burmese regime’s part. Vice President Mike Pence pressed Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in cahoots with the junta, for her country’s inability to ensure human rights and freedom of speech. Pompeo should follow suit, if nothing else, for the sake of his evangelical faith.

The Trump administration’s commitment towards human rights has come under sharp criticism — both at home and abroad. Myanmar can offer an avenue to redress some of those concerns. All it requires is a clear intent to take concrete actions based on credible information. Fortunately, there is no paucity of information about the heinous crimes that Myanmar’s army continues to commit, making it easier for the Trump administration to label them for what they are: genocide. The policy options will certainly become much more apparent.

Arafat Kabir is a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah. He writes about South Asian politics, defense, and business with a special focus on Bangladesh. He is a contributor to Forbes Asia. His articles have also published in media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. He can be reached on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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If there is one foreign policy area where the Trump administration has fallen far too short on living up to its promise, that would be Myanmar.
trump, pence, myanmar, rohingya
1037
2019-59-05
Monday, 05 August 2019 04:59 PM
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