Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Myanmar on Wednesday amid growing pleas for the Trump administration — which has been harshly criticized for downplaying human rights issues — to more forcefully intervene in what some observers call an anti-Muslim genocide there.
U.S. lawmakers and activists are urging Tillerson to sanction Myanmar’s military if it doesn’t stop what a top United Nations official has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The vicious crackdown on the Rohingya includes the killing of small children, seemingly systematic rape of women, and the razing of villages, and has sparked an exodus of more than 600,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh since late August.
President Donald Trump has not spoken in public about the crisis, despite hopes that he might address it during his two-week tour through Asia. But activists and officials said Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar, also known Burma, sends a crucial signal that the U.S. is taking the situation seriously.
Some believe the visit offers the administration a chance to rebut perceptions that it is anti-Muslim and anti-refugee. It is also an opportunity for Tillerson to win favor with a diplomatic community that has judged him harshly, including for suggesting that he places a low priority on human rights.
“We hope and believe that Tillerson will convey a very tough message to the Burmese military because the violence is still going on,” a senior Bangladeshi government official told POLITICO. “U.S. pressure, U.S. words and U.S. actions, of course, are taken seriously in Burma.”
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would reimpose U.S. sanctions on Myanmar unless its government stops persecuting the Rohingya. President Barack Obama lifted many U.S. sanctions after establishing ties to the long-isolated country in 2012.
Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country where the Rohingya, who are mainly Muslim, have long faced discrimination and bouts of repression. The latest crackdown began after a deadly attack on Myanmar security forces by suspected Rohingya rebels, but activists say the reprisal is wildly disproportionate. The campaign is the most intense persecution the Rohingya have faced since Myanmar began transitioning to democracy in 2010 after decades of military rule.
Obama hailed the democratic transition and became the first U.S. president to visit the country, where he met with its most famous pro-democracy activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi is now Myanmar’s de-facto civilian leader, but she has little power over the military and has downplayed the Rohingya crisis.
After a slow initial response, the Trump administration has recently taken steps to express its displeasure to Myanmar. It has declared that the U.S. will not offer assistance to culpable military units and rescinded invitations for senior Burmese security officials to U.S.-sponsored events. It also has pledged millions in humanitarian aid, much of which will go to Bangladesh, the poor, densely populated country dealing with an influx of Rohingya refugees.
While a top U.N. official has said the atrocities are a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the State Department is still mulling whether to use that label or the more legally weighty “genocide.” But Tillerson has publicly warned Myanmar to stop the violence or face consequences.
"We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening," Tillerson said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in mid-October. "What’s most important to us is that the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in that area."
Despite Trump’s personal silence on the issue, his administration’s actions have heartened some observers who worried that, given Trump’s relative quiet on human rights issues and his public hostility toward refugees and Muslims, his administration would ignore the Rohingya crisis.
“This is a moment of opportunity, because they have nothing to lose at this point,” said Sarah Margon, a top official with Human Rights Watch.
The House and Senate legislation imposes sanctions and travel restrictions on senior Burmese military officials and prohibits certain military cooperation with the Burmese military until the U.S. can verify the violence is over.
At least one senator, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland, has described what’s happening as a genocide. “They’re trying to destroy the population,” Cardin said in an October hearing. “People are arguing intent. What else are they doing this for? Other than the purity of their country and their lack of tolerance for a minority population.”
Nearly 60 human rights and civil society groups wrote a letter to Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this month urging the administration to “immediately and robustly impose targeted economic sanctions” against Burmese military officials implicated in the conflict.
Some lawmakers are wary of bringing too much pressure on Myanmar’s government, over which the military still holds tremendous sway. They include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a long-time supporter of Suu Kyi who worries that strong U.S. pressure may undermine the civilian leadership and derail the country’s transition to democracy.Some U.S. officials also worry about pushing Myanmar into the arms of China — countering one of Obama’s key rationales for restoring relations with the country.
Human rights activists are urging Tillerson to insist that Myanmar give U.N. investigators and aid groups access to the conflict zone, which lies in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. They also say Tillerson must lean on Myanmar to allow the dislocated Rohingya refugees to return home and live in peace.
Although aid organizations have obtained information from refugees in Bangladesh and turned to satellite technology to get a sense of the chaos in Myanmar, there’s little that can substitute for on-the-ground information at the scene of the crimes, said Joanne Lin, a top official with Amnesty International USA.
After all, she noted, “we still don’t know what the death count is.”