Many of Trump's efforts to unravel Obama's legacy, though, have stalled. More often than not, they have also proved widely unpopular among the public, according to a slate of opinion polls. But there's one hot spot where Trump could probably walk back the effects of Obama's foreign policy with little condemnation: Burma.
Just last year, many in Washington saw Burma's gradual transition away from military rule and toward democracy as validation of a largely bipartisan American policy of engagement. Under the Obama administration, the United States moved to ease trade sanctions on the once-isolated regime, reinstating Burma to a lucrative program that allows developing countries to export certain goods duty-free to the United States.
These measures all seemed to be part of Burma's steady path toward normal international relations after decades in the cold. “It is the right thing to do to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards for a new way of doing business,” Obama said last year, calling Burma a “good-news story in an era when so often we see countries going the opposite direction.”
The face of this transition was Aung San Suu Kyi, the acclaimed political prisoner and Nobel laureate who emerged from years of house arrest at the beginning of the decade, entered her nation's politics and eventually won election to parliament. She became Burma's state counselor in April 2016, a new post that made her the most powerful civilian leader in the country.
Fast-forward a year, though, and Burma is certainly not a “good-news story.” An unprecedented refugee crisis is taking place along the Burmese border with Bangladesh, with about 370,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing a Burmese military offensive in northern Rakhine state. On Tuesday, numerous reports of widespread extrajudicial killings and other atrocities carried out by security forces led the U.N. human rights chief to describe what's happening as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The Burmese government, including Suu Kyi, insists it is simply carrying out “clearance operations” against Islamist militants. It also classifies the Rohingya, who were stripped en masse of full citizenship rights in 1982, as “Bengali” interlopers, a claim that is not accepted by most international organizations. Suu Kyi has come under widespread criticism abroad for largely dismissing the plight of the Rohingya and toeing the military's line on events in Rakhine state.
In Bangladesh, authorities are straining under the pressure of hosting the vast influx of people. There are about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Burma living in temporary camps in Bangladesh, including tens of thousands who crossed over during earlier periods of violence. This population of de facto refugees is almost as large as the Rohingya population remaining across the border. On Monday, Bangladesh's foreign minister said "a genocide” was taking place in Burma and called for an international tribunal to investigate the violence of the past two weeks.
“We welcome the international community to come to the border areas in Bangladesh and see for themselves the plight of the people who fled the atrocities in Myanmar and ran for their lives to Bangladesh,” a senior Bangladeshi official told Today's WorldView, contrasting Bangladesh's stance with Burma's refusal to allow access into Rakhine.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the burden of hosting these Rohingya as “unbearable” for his country and urged the world to “put pressure” on the Burmese government to end the violence. “We cannot solve the problem. The problem was created by Myanmar,” he said, using another name for Burma. “The problem is in Myanmar, and Myanmar must take back these people and solve it.”
An emergency session of the U.N.'s Security Council is expected to address the issue Wednesday, with many hoping for a strong statement calling for a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to Rakhine. Meanwhile, it seems Suu Kyi will not travel to New York this month for the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly, where multiple world leaders are expected to raise the Rohingya issue.
Suu Kyi's defenders, though, insist that she is in an awfully tight spot, having to manage her relationship with the bruising Burmese military at a time when public opinion largely supports its crackdown on the Rohingya.
“Critically, and many commentators seem to have forgotten this, the generals still have the constitutional authority to take control of the government — a legal coup — should they feel that order needs to be restored,” former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote. “While there is plenty of blame to place on the military for the current situation in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi is the only one seeking to walk a tightrope, between providing a positive way forward for the Rohingya on the one hand, while not providing the military the pretext for ending Myanmar’s fledgling democracy on the other.”
So what pressure can be exerted on Burma's military? Obama gave away valuable leverage last year in easing sanctions on Burma; the threat of restoring them could be a significant option. But it's hard to imagine Trump, distracted by a host of other concerns and crises, taking a particularly active role on the matter. “Part of the problem is that there is not the kind of strong interest in the White House as there used to be,” Derek Mitchell, who was U.S. ambassador to Burma from 2012 to 2016, said to my colleagues last week.
After days of silence, the White House issued a statement Monday calling on “Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities.” As thousands continue to flee, tougher talk — and action — will be needed.
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