Sunday, January 21, 2018 | ePaper
Trump urged to speak up over potential Myanmar genocide
Amid reports of massacres and the flight of more than 150,000 minority Muslim Rohingya civilians from the country, neither the White House nor the State Department have issued recent statements on the growing crisis in a long-isolated country with which former President Barack Obama worked hard to restore relations.
That has bolstered the perception among activists that President Donald Trump and his advisers are indifferent to human rights and the power of the United States to defend the oppressed abroad. Critics say Trump has been particularly slow to condemn violence against Muslim communities, both abroad and within the U.S.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona are among a handful of U.S. lawmakers who are calling attention to the escalating violence in Myanmar, also known as Burma. "Sen. Cardin always expects the State Department to react to atrocities and uphold international human rights norms in line with the values of the United States," said Sean Bartlett, a Cardin spokesman. "He's consistently expressed concern that the president and the secretary of state are not vocal enough about human rights, and particularly as we work to support Burma in moving past its troubling history, he is concerned." The National Security Council and State Department have provided boilerplate statements expressing "deep concern" about the situation to reporters who ask. And Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a statement last week urging Myanmar's security forces to respect humanitarian law.
By signing up you agree to receive email newsletters or alerts from POLITICO. You can unsubscribe at any time. But activists say that only direct messages from Trump or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are likely to influence Myanmar's famously repressive military and save civilian lives. During the State Department's press briefing Thursday afternoon, after this story was published, spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted that the Trump administration cares about the crisis. "We urge all in Burma to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions there," she said. Nauert added that the U.S. is engaging at multiple levels with the Myanmar government, but could not specify any outreach by Tillerson. She further stressed that it's difficult for U.S. diplomats to access areas under siege in Myanmar to verify reports of atrocities. It was not clear why those officials could not talk to the tens of thousands of Rohingya who have have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the past two weeks.
The Rohingya are a long-marginalized Muslim community in the Southeast Asian country. The country's security forces say they are targeting Rohingya militants who have attacked them. But activists say the military operation is exacting a cruel toll on civilians, who have reportedly been executed by the hundreds. Complicating the situation is that the civilian government, whose de facto leader is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has limited influence over the country's military leadership. In 2012, Obama became the first U.S president to visit Burma, which spent decades closed to the outside world and run by a military dictatorship.
Obama restored U.S. relations with the country and celebrated Suu Kyi as the country's political savior. But in recent years, Suu Kyi has drawn international condemnation for refusing to criticize the military's actions toward the Rohingya, a group she generally avoids mentioning in any way. Majority-Buddhist Myanmar officially does not consider the Rohingya its citizens, insisting they are Bengalis despite their long history in Myanmar.
During their time in office, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry both called on Myanmar's government to stop discriminating against the Rohingya. Kerry did so while visiting with Suu Kyi. As the violence has escalated in the past two weeks, fellow Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani, has called on Suu Kyi to speak up.
Some critics have demanded Suu Kyi's Nobel prize be revoked. "We are hearing consistently from witnesses in Bangladesh that the Burmese military is undertaking an extremely heavy handed and abusive operation, while the civilian government there says nothing," said Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
"The Trump administration may not like to project publicly its intentions, but given the scale and scope of this crisis this is not a moment to sit idly by." The State Department did not offer a response to questions Thursday about why it has stayed relatively quiet and not issued a public statement under Tillerson's name. Members of Congress have grown increasingly outspoken on the situation. "Your government and the military have a responsibility to protect all of the people of Myanmar, regardless of their ethnic background or religious beliefs. These atrocities, the latest and most severe against this minority group, must end," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) wrote in a Wednesday letter to Suu Kyi. McCain also appealed to Suu Kyi in a Sept. 5 letter: "If you take steps to hold the military and other human rights violators accountable for their actions, you will have my full support and I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that your government has the assistance it requires to do so," wrote McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has taken a longtime interest in Myanmar's political progress.
McCain and a handful of other Republican and Democratic senators also introduced a resolution Thursday condemning the violence and urging Suu Kyi to "address the historic and brutal repression of the Rohingya." The administration's quiet approach to Myanmar underscores its muddled messaging on human rights.
Trump, for instance, has invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, even though Duterte has overseen a crackdown on drugs that has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. In May, Tillerson said that pressing a human rights agenda at times "creates obstacles" for U.S. foreign policy.
The latest violence in Myanmar began on Aug. 25 when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts, killing 12 security force members. The State Department issued a statement that day condemning the insurgents' attacks and urging that security forces respond carefully. But as security forces in Myanmar's Rakhine state have responded with what they call "clearance operations," other governments, especially in the Muslim world, have grown infuriated by the pressure placed on Rohingya civilians.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Myanmar's government of genocide. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said there is a risk that the killings could turn into an ethnic cleansing and destabilize the region. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on Wednesday: "Canada is deeply concerned by the flow of refugees from Myanmar & reports of serious abuse against the Rohingya. Civilians must be protected."