US foreign policy under new President Joseph Biden will be centered on promoting democracy and human rights around the world, Antony Blinken, the administration’s nominee for secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing in Washington on Jan. 19. Unlike Republican President Donald Trump, the new Democratic administration is likely to make human rights its top priority in dealing with Myanmar.
The UN Human Rights Commission said in September that ongoing and severe human rights violations continue to occur in armed conflict areas of Myanmar, including in the ethnic states of Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and Chin, despite the country’s ongoing democratic reform and peace-building processes.
It urged Myanmar to take concrete steps toward accountability for rights violations and said the current government’s initiatives to address the situation have been “inadequate and fallen short of international standards”.
In particular, alleged human rights violations against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State are likely to be a focus of US engagement with Myanmar.
Blinken has experience dealing with the human rights situation in Myanmar, having visited the country during the Obama administration, and has expressed a personal interest in the Rohingya cause. He told the committee he was committed to overseeing an inter-agency process to determine whether the alleged crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar amount to genocide.
He was referring to military operations against the Rohingya in response to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)’s coordinated attacks on border police outposts in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017. The security operation led more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee their homes, and many of the refugees are still sheltering in crowded camps in Bangladesh. Those who fled recalled arbitrary killings, rapes and arson attacks against their property by Myanmar security forces. UN investigators said the operations had “genocidal intent”, an accusation denied by both the Myanmar government and military. As a result of the crisis, Myanmar has faced heavy international condemnation since late 2017.
In November 2019, Gambia, a mostly Muslim nation in West Africa, filed genocide charges against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). A case was opened the following month.
“We want the US to consider [the issue] by looking at the root causes, and to avoid any actions that could lead to a confrontation with the Myanmar public.”
In addition, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) have launched an investigation into alleged crimes against Rohingya, including the crime of deportation, and a private lawsuit has been brought in a court in Argentina under the principle of universal jurisdiction, accusing Myanmar of committing genocide.
U Aung Myo Min, a veteran human rights advocate and the executive director of Equality Myanmar, expected the US’ stand on democracy and human rights to be firm under Biden, but warned that sustained pressure from Washington over the Rohingya issue could prompt a “backlash in the form of objections by the Myanmar public.”
He added that an added emphasis by the new US administration on progress on human rights in regard to the Rohingya could prompt “hate speech [which] has already been seen [in Myanmar].” The instigators of such speech would likely exploit the Rohingya issue, citing US interference, he said.
In April 2016, shortly after the NLD formed its first government, ultranationalists staged a rally in front of the US Embassy in Yangon to protest against the American mission’s use of the word “Rohingya”. Many people in Myanmar refer to the group as “Bengali”, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The NLD government avoids both terms and refers to them as “Muslim from northern Rakhine”.
U Aung Myo Min said the issue of Rohingya rights needed to be handled cautiously, citing the past reactions of ultranationalists. “Our country has this specific condition that there is a risk of angry mobs and their supporters using hate speech to lay stepping-stones for political gains,” he said.
While many in Myanmar continue to see the Rohingya as interlopers from Bangladesh, citing the population boom in the neighboring country, the narrative has slowly begun to change in recent years, with more people acknowledging the humanitarian needs of the refugees, who were originally from northern Rakhine State, and calling for the repatriation of those who fled to Bangladesh in 2017.
The official repatriation process, which began in January 2018, has been unsuccessful, as a majority of Rohingya have refused to come back, demanding “protected return”. Aside from the refugees’ unwillingness to participate, the process has been on hold since mid-2020, when new border restrictions were implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We don’t think the US would determine anything without a proper investigation and examination in relation to the Bengali/Rohingya issue [in Rakhine State]. The root causes of the problem need to be thoroughly studied,” said U Tun Aung Kyaw, an Upper House lawmaker-elect from the Arakan National Party.
He said his party acknowledged the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya, but urged the international community to respect the laws of the country, pointing out that the government has repeatedly said Myanmar is ready to accept the return of displaced Rohingya provided they are scrutinized in accordance with existing laws.
“We want the US to consider [the issue] by looking at the root causes, and to avoid any actions that could lead to a confrontation with the Myanmar public,” the MP-elect said.
“It would be worrisome if Myanmar were forced to deepen its dependence on China, because China–which is only interested in business–would not stand up for human rights as the US would.”
To help smooth bilateral relations, the US could apply short- and long-term policies to the issue, U Aung Myo Min said. In the short term, he urged the US to cooperate with the Myanmar government on repatriation and providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees without discrimination.
“The current government is working on those issues and the US could start with that pragmatic approach. And then, they could continue urging more policy reforms on sensitive issues like changing the Citizenship Law,” he said.
The government formed the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) in 2018 to investigate allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the ARSA attacks in 2017. It was tasked with seeking accountability and formulating recommendations on steps to be taken to ensure peace and stability in Rakhine.
The ICOE published its recommendations in January 2020. Among its findings were that the military’s security operations against Rohingya insurgents had no genocidal intent, but that serious human rights violations including war crimes were committed by security forces, their associated thugs, ARSA members and Rohingya civilians themselves during the period of the military’s clearance operations between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, 2017.
In response to ICOE’s recommendations, the military convened two courts martial against soldiers accused of mass killings of Rohingya insurgents in 2017.
Observers have called on the Myanmar government and military to show greater transparency in the investigations and related proceedings.
As the Biden administration will be pushing for accountability and the safe return of the Rohingya, the Myanmar government needs to act transparently, said Dr. Min Zaw Oo, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.
He said Myanmar’s investigation into the events in Rakhine State in 2017 needs to be transparent, adding that the government must punish the perpetrators of rights violations and repatriate the displaced Rohingya.
Economist Dr. Zaw Oo echoed Dr. Min Zaw Oo’s remarks, saying, “Our government needs to act carefully on the human rights issue,” as the US will certainly take stronger actions on human rights issues, pointing to the fact that the new US leadership has already made comments about Myanmar’s human rights situation.
The NLD government has been dealing with the Rohingya issue “systematically and as best it can” because it is one of the key problems to resolve as part of the democratic transition, said Daw Pyone Kaythi Naing, a Lower House lawmaker from the NLD who also leads the International Relations Taskforce of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD). The UEHRD–a public-private partnership mechanism led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi–was formed in October 2017 to work on development in northern Rakhine.
The lawmaker urged that the new US administration’s interaction “should be supportive” and “avoid any further complication of the already complex and sensitive situation”. She reiterated the government’s position that the Rohingya issue is considered a “complex and delicate” one in Myanmar.
Observers caution that if not dealt with carefully, the Rohingya issue could further damage relations between Washington and Naypyitaw and push Myanmar closer to China.
Given the strategic importance of Myanmar’s location to its fast-growing neighbor, they say, the US should weigh any actions for their potential to push Myanmar further into Beijing’s orbit.
“It would be worrisome if Myanmar were forced to deepen its dependence on China, because China–which is only interested in business–would not stand up for human rights as the US would,” U Aung Myo Min added.
The US will engage with Myanmar under its Indo-Pacific strategy while continuing its support for democratic reforms in the country, added Dr. Min Zaw Oo. The strategy is the US’ priority framework for investing in multiple sectors—the economy, human resources, strengthening democratic institutions, infrastructure and energy—to promote peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
Despite the concerns, Dr. Min Zaw Oo expressed optimism that the narrow issue of whether genocide was perpetrated against the Rohingya would not be allowed to hinder overall progress in US-Myanmar relations in the coming four years.
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