Should Trump Speak on Rakhine?

By The Irrawaddy 7 November 2017

International campaign groups have urged US President Trump to speak on Myanmar and the plight of the Rohingya during his ongoing trip to Asia.

However, Trump and the White House will need to find a balanced approach to address the complex situation.

The fear is that an offhand remark or tweet from the president could be like throwing gasoline on a fire, further dividing communities.

The US under Trump has been seen as unreliable, distasteful and divisive. This division should not be brought to Myanmar in its fragile state, where enough extremists and hardliners thrive already.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Myanmar soon. He will hold talks with top ranking officials including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing on the situation in Rakhine State and the democratic transition.

The United States, while condemning the violence, has been careful to say it holds the military responsible, not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

The US still sees Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the best hope to solve the conflict in Northern Rakhine State but it also wants to punish the military for its offensive in the wake of retaliation against Muslim militants and the Rohingya population.

The US Embassy in Yangon condemned militant attacks but the return of targeted sanctions on Myanmar is likely a result of armed forces’ subsequent brutal campaign against the Rohingya population.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her moral failure in not addressing the crisis in northern Rakhine State – but do we want the scandal-plagued US president to speak on human rights and democratic values in Myanmar?

When Obama made his historic visit in 2012, US engagement was welcomed throughout Myanmar despite some activists and skeptics remaining cautious. The US’s engagement now will likely face a mixed reception at home.

The US Congress is paying attention to the situation in Rakhine and in Myanmar and the State Department is under pressure to address the issue in Rakhine State.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) asked the government to “ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State.”

“The Security Council calls upon the Government of Myanmar to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State, to restore civilian administration and apply the rule of law, and to take immediate steps in accordance with their obligations and commitments to respect human rights,” it said. The pressure on the military and the government will not simply go away. But China, powerful neighbor with close ties to the Myanmar government and several armed ethnic groups, still holds the key at the UN to swaying the outcome of the UNSC.

In any case, pressure is mounting to impose sanctions.

A group of US senators introduced a bill that would not allow certain types of military cooperation with the armed forces in Myanmar, and would place sanctions and travel restrictions on top members of the Myanmar military linked to the Rakhine State violence. These restrictions would continue as long as the violence continued.

The Rakhine issue will no doubt dominate the dialogue between Myanmar officials and Tillerson.

With military leaders, Tillerson will have a difficult time engaging as the top leaders these days take a tough stance toward ethnic groups and marginalized populations and have learned to resist foreign influence and pressure by establishing other regional allies. The military feels it is no longer isolated and that it has some degree of support. The military today is more assertive than before. But it also realizes that western pressure and sanctions will soon target it.

The irony is that the military and associates are now placing blame on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as though she wanted the US to impose sanctions. It is unclear whether she wanted to see sanctions imposed as a punishment against the military, but she is now stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The media has suggested that efforts to bring sanctions and accountability through the Senate ultimately rest on majority leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who has thus far sided with those wary of anything that could undermine her position, destabilize the country and diminish the newly installed democratic government. Human rights groups said McConnell’s friendship with the state counselor was a major obstacle to the Senate imposing repercussions on Myanmar.

As always, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s position on sanctions is vague. In the past, she wanted to pressure the generals to enter into political dialogue, thus western sanctions were her political bargaining chips. Those days are gone. Her spokesman, U Zaw Htay, a former army officer, warned of “bad consequences” if sanctions were imposed. But the question is bad consequences for whom?

If imposed, how will sanctions affect internal politics and the dynamic between Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Will there be more open confrontation between top army leaders and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Moreover, how will ethnic groups react to looming US sanctions and how have radical nationalist groups instigated public opinion of the Buddhist population toward expressing fury over US sanctions?

If Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and top leaders are on the sanction list, his future political ambition will be stained. But will that give more political advantage to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, democratic forces and those ethnic groups struggling to achieve a federal union?

We will soon find out.

But with Tillerson’s high-level visit in the next week, the US’s principle-based engagement should also be under review. Why did the UN and the West’s engagement so far produce a complete failure in Myanmar? There is no happy ending to Myanmar’s story.

It is time to take a deeper look into the complex situation inside the country in order to assist the people and the country. Aside from the Rakhine issue, the US should also pay attention to the ongoing conflict in ethnic regions in the north, the stalled peace process, the rise of extreme nationalism in the country and the 2008 Constitution – the main obstacles keeping the country from moving forward.