Lost in the ‘Bigger Picture’: The Recent History of U.S. Policy on the Rohingya Question

By Sanjeev Dasgupta


As one of the most powerful nations and strongest advocates for human rights in the world, the United States can – and has – become an important stakeholder in the international dimensions of the Rohingya problem. The U.S. can use both economic and diplomatic measures to put pressure on a state – especially a smaller state such as Myanmar – to ameliorate its policies towards groups like the Rohingya. However, Myanmar has a historical record of human rights abuses not just in the Rohingya case but in multiple other areas as well, largely due to the presence of a military junta at the center. And so, U.S. policy on the Rohingya issue cannot be isolated from the broader question of democratic reform in the country. In fact, in many instances, the US has allowed the Myanmar government to get away with increased persecution of the Rohingya due to this big picture narrative of democratic reform. And while democratic reform in Myanmar has arguably been one of President Obama’s most active – and some would say most successful – foreign policy endeavors, there is significant concern as to how this particular policy might be carried forward by the Trump administration.

While relations between the United States and Myanmar – then Burma – were relatively normal after Myanmar’s independence from the British following World War 2, relations soured in the aftermath of the military’s brutal repression of peaceful protesters in August of 1988, an event that came to be known as the 8888 Uprising. In response to the crackdown, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives condemned the Burmese military government and urged the Reagan administration to pursue democratic and human rights reform in the country. The Reagan administration followed the lead of the legislative bodies by suspending all US aid to Burma and stopping all arms sales in September of 1988. This action established two key pillars of U.S. policy towards the question of human rights in Myanmar for the next two decades: (i) the active and at times leading role played by Congress in shaping U.S. policy towards Myanmar; and (ii) the use of sanctions as the primary diplomatic and economic tool to put pressure on the military government.

Since coming into power, the Obama administration has gradually shifted away from these two pillars, both with a more active role played by the White House as well as the expansion of U.S. diplomacy to avenues beyond merely sanctions. After Obama took office in 2009, the State Department undertook a seven-month review, discussion and consultation on U.S. policy towards Myanmar, which resulted in the adoption of a new approach to the nation. While existing sanctions remained, the administration added two important elements. First, it announced its willingness to engage in direct dialogue with Myanmar’s ruling military junta – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – on how to promote democracy and human rights in the nation. And second, it sought to cooperate to a greater extent with the SPDC on international security issues, such as nuclear nonproliferation and counter-narcotics efforts. Following these changes, Myanmar held its first parliamentary elections in 20 years in November 2010. The government then released Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, from house arrest. And in March 2011, the SPDC transferred power to a quasi-civilian government, although most of the leaders were ex-generals and the SPDC mainly wrote the new constitution. Still, in the largely dim history of human rights reform in Myanmar, these were events to be celebrated.

President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

During this period, the administration continued to tie the Rohingya question to the larger goal of democratic reform. It maintained its belief that issues in Rakhine state were tied to the presence of the military junta at the center; having a democratic government would seemingly solve – or at the very least vastly improve – the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine. This was only a partially correct understanding of the situation. The junta did play a part in the continued oppression of the Rohingya – it was they after all who implemented the highly discriminatory Citizenship Law of 1982, which stripped the vast majority of the Rohingya of any form of citizenship or legitimate legal recognition in the state. However, it was the desire to maintain control over Rakhine that primarily influenced the junta’s decision, a political concern that is not unique to just a dictatorship. As recent developments have shown, conditions for the Rohingya continue to be very harsh despite the ascendancy of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in 2015 under the stewardship of Suu Kyi. In late October, the military mounted indiscriminate reprisal attacks on the Rohingya in response to a 9 October assault on three border posts. And despite all the hope that accompanied the NLD’s rise to power, the government has been largely silent on the issue of the military’s continued abuse in Rakhine, and Suu Kyi herself has been accused of turning a blind eye to the violence.

Many have accused the Obama administration of moving too fast on lifting sanctions on Myanmar and normalizing relations with the government in Naypyitaw. Obama’s recent decision to lift more sanctions was not received well by many human rights advocates. Some called it premature while officials from Human Rights Watch called it “astounding” considering the recent violence that broke out on October 9. There is no doubt that Obama has overseen massive democratic reform in Myanmar since taking power. He deserves credit for changing the course of U.S. policy, which has influenced the changing course of Myanmar’s central administration. However, as Obama prepares to leave office, some of his rhetoric suggests that he wants to leave a legacy of success with U.S.-Myanmar relations, success that he may be willing to achieve at the cost of the Rohingya. And while a continuation of Obama’s policy towards Myanmar could very well be beneficial for the Rohingya, especially now that the big picture narrative of democratic reform is seemingly over, an incoming Trump administration does not appear to bode well for the issue.
Trump’s isolationist tendencies suggest that U.S. engagement with the government of Myanmar will decrease in the future. Trump’s suggestions that he may reverse Obama’s outreach efforts to Cuba and Iran, once-pariah states similar to Myanmar, also suggest that relations with Myanmar may not be as much of a priority in the future. Despite all the criticisms of the Obama administration’s policies towards the Rohingya issue, the White House’s efforts have been undeniably instrumental in effecting some reforms in Naypyitaw, all of which have been a step in the right direction. If the Trump White House steps back U.S. engagement with the Myanmar government, we will return to the pre-Obama state where Congressional action was the only thing that was driving U.S. policy towards Myanmar. And that is the case only if Congress decides that the Rohingya issue is still a major concern despite the seemingly successful realization of democratic reform. History tells us that a Congress-led U.S. policy towards Myanmar, with a largely ambivalent White House, would be far less likely to improve the conditions of the Rohingya population – and this at a time when they need U.S. support more than ever.