Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the title of David Steinberg. He is former director of the Asian studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. This version has been updated.
As the humanitarian crisis in northern Burma worsens, the international community and the Trump administration seem paralyzed. The Burmese military is perpetrating ethnic cleansing on a massive scale and the United States has responded with a series of critical statements backed by no action and no clear strategy to stop the slaughter.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the latest top Trump administration official to talk tough about the situation in Burma’s Rakhine state, where more than half a million ethnic Rohingya Muslims have been chased from their homes into Bangladesh by the Burmese military’s scorched earth campaign of murder and mayhem.
“We are extraordinarily concerned about what’s happening with the Rohingya in Burma,” Tillerson said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported there.”
The U.S. government is asking for access to the afflicted areas in order to get a first-hand read on the situation, Tillerson said. He promised some unspecified reckoning for the abusers in the future.
“Someone, if these reports are true, someone is going to be held to account for that,” Tillerson said. “And it’s up to the military leadership of Burma to decide, ‘What direction do they want to play in the future of Burma?’”
Other Trump officials have gone a bit further. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley severely admonished the Burmese military during the U.N. General Assembly last month. She called for any leaders involved to be replaced, and she called on countries to curb their cooperation with the military.
Vice President Pence, in his U.N. address, called the Burmese situation a “great tragedy” and a “heart-breaking assault on human rights.” Like Haley, he called on the United Nations to take action.
Given that Security Council action is unlikely due to Russian and Chinese support for the Burmese military, calls are increasing for the U.S. government to turn its words into action. Those calls are bolstered by the new facts that are emerging about the scale and grotesque nature of the atrocities being perpetrated on the Rohingya.
A report issued last week by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights stated that the systematic campaign against Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese security forces in cooperation with Rakhine Buddhists are intended to drive them out of Burma, ensure they don’t return, and “instill deep and widespread fear and trauma – physical, emotional and psychological.”
It was the head of this office, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who sounded the alarm over a month ago by declaring that the persecution of the Rohingya was “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Testifying before Congress Oct. 5, the State Department’s lead official on Burma, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy, said that the U.S. government had made clear to top leaders in Burma that the United States opposed their actions and was pushing for allowing humanitarian access. Top Trump officials have discussed the case in interactions with other regional leaders. The White House, State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations have all issued statements. But the broader strategy is still being crafted.
“The U.S. government is developing an overarching policy response that includes ways to discourage the serious human rights abuses we have seen and further encourage the democratization process and economic development in Rakhine State and throughout the country,” Murphy said.
The situation in Burma is complex and there are no easy answers. The U.S. and other countries are contemplating sanctions on Burmese military leaders. Experts warn that sanctions alone are not likely to work. There must also be an effort to seriously engage the Burmese military leadership.
“The Obama administration had a Burma policy, it was reasonable effective. The Trump administration has no policy,” said David Steinberg, former director of the Asian studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
A real, robust Burma policy would on the one hand make it clear to the Burmese leadership that there are long-term economic consequences if they continue their atrocities, he said, while also offering incentives for the Burmese leadership to follow a path that allows the Rohingya to live in Burma peacefully.
If the Trump administration fails to come up with a more aggressive and creative approach, America’s decade long effort to bring Burma back into the international community of nations could collapse and China is sure to fill the gap. The administration has said all the right things, but now it is time to do the right things.