SINGAPORE – Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, got more than she bargained for after she requested a meeting with Vice President Pence here Wednesday. Pence repeatedly called on her to pardon two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar and pressed her to protect the Rohingya, Muslim victims of a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign by the Myanmar military. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been widely criticized for siding with the troops and failing to defend the Rohingya.
It wasn’t your typical bilateral meeting here at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, a three-day confab of world leaders with interests in the region. Pence also met Wednesday with leaders from Vietnam, India and Indonesia. The press witnessed only opening remarks of those interactions, which were largely pleasantries and compliments. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi joked that the name of Pence’s home state of Indiana translates in Hindi to mean “Come to India.” Pence laughed but didn’t commit to a visit.
Pence’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi was different in tone and substance. He began by raising the issue of the Rohingya, 700,000 of whom were driven out of their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh by the Myanmar military. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands remain missing. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the military’s atrocities — much less stop them — has resulted in her being stripped of several humanitarian honors, most recently by Amnesty International.
“This is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of millions of Americans,” Pence said, as Aung San Suu Kyi sat stoically beside him. Pence said the atrocities were “without excuse” and added he was anxious to hear about “the progress that you’re making holding those accountable who are responsible.”
He then told her Americans believe in “free and independent press” and the Burmese government’s jailing of two journalists last year was “deeply troubling.” He was referring to Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested last December while investigating the deaths of Rohingya civilians. In September, Aung San Suu Kyi defended their arrests, saying they had broken the law and their case has “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all.”
With the press watching Wednesday, she didn’t address either issue directly but instead lectured Pence on making judgments about Myanmar’s internal matters.
“We can say that we understand our country better than any other country does,” she said in a hushed, almost inaudible tone. “So, we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening.”
Pence wasn’t just mugging for the cameras. Inside the private portion of their meeting, he pressed Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly to pardon the two Reuters journalists, a senior administration official said. The two leaders had a “very candid exchange of views” on the journalists’ situation and the Rohingya crisis overall, the official said.
“The vice president talked about the importance of press freedom being honored and protected and that is a key part of what it means to be an open and democratic nation,” the official said. Another official said Pence pressed her on the issue of the imprisoned journalists multiple times.
Inside the meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi told Pence about her government’s official Commission of Inquiry and said its members have a broad scope of authority to pursue justice, according to the U.S. official. Human Rights Watch has called the commission the Myanmar government’s “latest sham” in its attempt to avoid justice for the atrocities.
On Thursday, the Myanmar government will begin to repatriate the first 2,000 or so Rohingya to the site of their previous homes, without their input or consent. U.N. Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday that “effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades.”
“The vice president made clear that [the repatriation program] must take place in a manner that is transparent, safe, voluntary,” the administration official said.
While advocacy for press freedom and human rights may seem unusual in the Trump administration, for Pence it’s part of his long-held, values-based approach to foreign policy. In July, he met with Tibetan activists and called out China for its forced internment of hundreds of thousands of innocent Uighur and other ethnic minorities.
The U.S. officials emphasized Pence was respectful in tone and sincere in his message that the United States wants to see Myanmar succeed and progress on its path toward democratic reforms. Still, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed put off by Pence’s approach and the resulting news coverage only highlights her fall from grace and the end of her reputation as a human rights leader.
Pence, however, is correct in administering this particular dose of tough love. Countries that respect the rights of their own citizens make better allies. And good friends speak up when they see their friend doing something wrong. Moreover, America was founded on the ideals of religious freedom, democracy and dignity for every human being. If this counts as nationalism, it’s the kind that the Trump administration should display more often.