As President, Joe Biden has pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on moral values and cooperation, an approach that prioritizes decency and the protection of human rights. This pledge will be immediately tested by the ongoing repercussions of one of the worst mass atrocities in recent history, the genocide committed by the state of Myanmar against the Rohingya. But there is a way forward. And renewed global engagement can pave the way toward a lasting solution. An immediate first step should be to recognize the crimes against the Rohingya for what they are: crimes against humanity and genocide.
Starting in August 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a brutal assault that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya people across the border into Bangladesh in a matter of months. As documented by numerous independent reports – including by Refugees International, a UN Independent International Fact Finding Mission, and the State Department’s own report – the assault was marked by systematic killings of civilians, burning of hundreds of villages, and widespread sexual assault. Today, some 1 million Rohingya refugees remain in dire conditions in Bangladesh, while another 600,000 remain at high risk of further atrocities inside Myanmar.
Despite some international pressure – including U.S. targeted sanctions on the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – and ongoing accountability efforts in international and domestic fora, Myanmar has failed to improve conditions and to address these gravest of crimes. In fact, life for Rohingya in Rakhine state has largely deteriorated, and the prospect of further atrocities has grown worse. Under these conditions, the likelihood of safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable returns of Rohingya to their homeland is not realistic in the near future.
Myanmar continues to repudiate international norms and human rights obligations. Recent elections in Myanmar were neither free nor fair and specifically excluded Rohingya from voting or running for office. The government continues to abuse and marginalize ethnic minorities around the country. The Rohingya remain effectively stateless as the Myanmar government, through its flawed 1982 Citizenship Law, still denies them citizenship. Rohingya in Rakhine state continue to face restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to medical care and humanitarian aid. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as Myanmar now faces a sharp increase in cases.
Yet, senior officials in Myanmar have arguably shown at least some interest in the good opinion of the international community and have responded to concerted international pressure. Just before the August 2017 assault, the Myanmar government and military indicated that they were prepared to accept the recommendations of an international commission chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and focused on conditions in Rakhine state and the situation of the Rohingya. More recently, the government has engaged international experts in creating a plan for the closure of prison-like camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) as recommended by the Annan Commission. And in December 2019, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to The Hague to defend her country against genocide charges before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Some of this was motivated by domestic political calculations – Suu Kyi’s visit to the Hague played well ahead of Myanmar’s elections – and other steps, like implementation of its camp closure strategy and domestic accountability efforts, are little more than window dressing. But without the international pressure that has been cobbled together—however limited that has been—even these steps would not likely have been taken, and the message of impunity would have been heard more loudly and more clearly by Myanmar’s military.
Changing the policies and practices of the state of Myanmar will require a multifaceted approach, one that combines increased international pressure with ongoing diplomatic engagement. For the sake of credibility both with Myanmar and globally, the United States government must speak truthfully about what has happened and be willing to use condemnation and targeted sanctions to demonstrate that the perpetration of egregious crimes comes with serious costs. At the same time, the Biden administration should show a willingness to promote a more cooperative relationship with Myanmar in return for significant and substantial improvements in the treatment of the Rohingya, and a genuine willingness on the part of Myanmar authorities to support accountability for abuses.
The U.S. effort should be led by an official of high-standing who would be responsible for promoting multilateral coordination of measures that include diplomatic engagement with the authorities in Myanmar, further targeted sanctions including on military-owned enterprises, and support for international accountability efforts. On behalf of the U.S. government, the appointee should press for a UN Security Council session on the Rohingya crisis, which should coincide with U.S. recognition that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.
Some analysts may argue that pursuing a policy that includes strong pressures on Myanmar will be counterproductive, harming Myanmar’s population and efforts at democracy while driving Myanmar into the hands of China. But Myanmar’s relationship with China is complex, there is wariness about Chinese influence, and the United States is seen by many in Myanmar as a counterbalance. Moreover, pressure need not be as blunt as blanket sanctions, and can be targeted at those who are responsible for abuses. More importantly, an unchanged approach risks bolstering Myanmar’s sense of impunity and enabling further abuses, not to mention denying the accountability Rohingya seek as part of their safe return.
In short, a concerted multilateral effort both to engage and pressure Myanmar where needed would greatly enhance the prospects for preventing a repeat of one of the most egregious crimes in recent history and for reaching a long-term solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis.