Myanmar is burning. The military offensive against the Rohingyas in northwest Myanmar has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, fleeing from torture and death at the hands of the Burmese military. The rhetoric of the Burmese government stokes anti-Muslim sentiment while Rohingya refugee camps serve as potential recruitment spots for Islamist extremists. The entire conflict undermines the principles of human rights and democracy and is creating massive security risks for Southeast Asia and the world at large. The United States should take immediate and decisive action to halt the violence and reduce the suffering of the Rohingyas.
The conflict started when Rohingya militants attacked police posts in the Rakhine region on the 25th of August this year. These attacks resulted in the deaths of 12 security personnel, sparking a crackdown in the region by the Burmese military. Amnesty International reports that the Burmese military has undertaken an ‘orchestrated and systematic campaign’ to drive out or murder the Rohingyas and destroy their villages. Over 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since. Local reports highlight occurrences of torture, killings, gang rapes, arson and other grave human rights violations against the Rohingyas at the hands of the Burmese military and allied mobs. The Burmese government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been silent in the face of the military action in the Rakhine state.
In 2011, Myanmar began the process toward a long-awaited transition to democracy from a military dictatorship of over six decades. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the state elections and formed the first civilian-led government since 1962. The position of President is held by Htin Kyaw, but Aung San Suu Kyi made clear her role as the de facto leader of Myanmar. Suu Kyi holds the title of ‘state counsellor’ as the Burmese constitution prevents her from ever becoming president. Despite the enormous effort toward democratization, the Burmese government remains overshadowed by the influence and power of the repressive military.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi may essentially be president, but the military is the real center of power.
The United States revived diplomatic ties with Myanmar in 2012, following its transition to democracy. The strategy employed was of acknowledging steps toward democratization and incentivizing further reform via economic assistance. However, this policy has failed to establish meaningful dialogue with the Burmese military leadership or Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, over the question of repression of the Rohingyas.
The United States should publicly condemn state inaction in Myanmar. It should urge the United Nations to institute travel bans on military officials responsible for the violence, freeze their assets, and institute a comprehensive arms embargo against the Burmese military. The United States should use this pressure to negotiate with the Burmese government to open channels of humanitarian aid to the conflict areas and to stop the use of antipersonnel landmines at key border crossings between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United States should also be prepared to cut off all economic assistance to Myanmar in case an arms embargo fails to materialize or is not an effective deterrent.
Targeted sanctions against the Burmese military officials will be a personal motivator to stop the military offensive in the region. International actors such as the EU and UN can sanction the military to give the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, room to take decisive action to stop the violence and to open channels for humanitarian aid to reach the afflicted regions. These steps will help suppress the influence and power of the military, something that has constantly threatened the young democracy in Myanmar.
The violence against the Rohingyas must be stopped, not only because of overwhelming moral concerns, but also for strategic reasons. In its years of isolation from the world, Myanmar maintained strong economic, military and diplomatic ties with North Korea. Myanmar also has robust trade relations with Russia and China and has allowed China to establish military presence in the country, a move which gives China better access and control over the Indian Ocean. As the United States strengthens ties with India to counter Chinese and North Korean influence, it must make inroads with the Burmese civilian government to help shift the balance in the United States’s favor.
Myanmarese politician Shwe Mann led a delegation to North Korea in 2008.
If China and Russia oppose sanctions and a trade embargo against Myanmar, the United States has the option of stopping all financial aid. The United States can stop all investment into the Burmese economy and re-impose all previous sanctions, while also requesting that European Union states and other allies institute similar policies. Curtailing investments and imposing sanctions on Myanmar could adversely impact its fragile economy. Myanmar is adjusting to a recently opened economy making it vulnerable to changes in investments flowing into the country.
Although the violence in Myanmar is concentrated to a small geographical region, the most worrying consequence of the Rohingya crisis is that the displaced and marginalized people, especially the youth, could easily be proselytized into joining extremist Islamist groups. The Taliban, ISIS, and other extremist organizations have exploited fragile borders and conflicts in the past to recruit for their militias. Terrorized, battered, and desperate for hope, the Rohingyas would be vulnerable to extremist recruitment if they see association with an extremist group as the price to pay for a full stomach and security.
The United States cannot risk further escalation of the conflict in Myanmar. The moral and strategic reasons are compelling. Immediate and decisive action against the Burmese state and military is necessary to halt the violence and facilitate steps toward resolution of the conflict. These actions will strengthen the U.S. credibility in Southeast Asia and strengthen regional stability and security. These actions will demonstrate our commitment to democracy and human rights and offer the Rohingyas relief, hope, and the opportunity to live a life of dignity.
* * *
Priyadarshini Rakh is a first year Master’s student in the MAIA program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She studied Political Science, Economics, and Law at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India. At Elliott, her focus is conflict and development in South Asia.