U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Myanmar’s Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe last Thursday, Sept. 27, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. During the meeting, Pompeo called for Myanmar’s government to hold its military accountable for violence committed against its Muslim minority population (Reuters, “U.S. urges Myanmar to hold security forces accountable in Rohingya crackdown,” 09.28.2018).
In Rakhine State, a western coastal region of Myanmar, about one-third of the population identifies as Rohingya Muslim. The Rohingya are ethnically, religiously and linguistically distinct from Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population. Under current legislation, many of the Rohingya are undocumented. Since the 1940s, laws have also barred them from citizenship, marriage, education and employment (Council on Foreign Relations, “The Rohingya Crisis,” 04.20.2018).
However, the most recent controversy surrounding the Rakhine State involves allegations of ethnic cleansing on the part of Myanmar’s military. On Thursday, Myanmar saw responses from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which decided to establish an independent body to advance any criminal charges that result from the actions of Myanmar security forces. The decision was backed by a majority of 35 of the council’s 47 members and came after an August report by a U.N. fact-finding team that called for the prosecution of the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other top military leaders (The New York Times, “Human Rights Council Ratchets Up Pressure on Myanmar,” 09.27.2018).
According to the U.N., 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries following a military crackdown last year. Both the U.S. State Department and the U.N. released documents that list atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya.
The U.S. report came out earlier in the week, before Pompeo’s meeting with Myanmar officials, and listed mass killings, arson and rapes as part of deliberate efforts by the Myanmar military. Myanmar has defended its actions, claiming the fact-finders were misinformed about the military’s campaign against terrorism (Reuters, “U.S. urges Myanmar”).
A coalition of all the countries in the European Union and 57 states from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation sponsored the U.N.’s resolution. The Pakistani ambassador to the U.N. Farukh Amil said the collaboration was “unprecedented” and that it should be understood as a strong message to Myanmar’s government (The New York Times, “Human Rights Council”).
In Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 26, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged the Trump administration to call Myanmar’s actions a genocide. The members said that a debate over language delayed the release of the report for a month. At the heart of the dispute was the fact that the U.S. report did not use language such as “genocidal intent” or “crimes against humanity” like the U.N. analysis had. Both Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN) asked Pompeo if he worked to make a legal determination of genocide through the State Department (Reuters, “Lawmakers urge U.S. to call Myanmar’s Rohingya campaign genocide,” 09.26.2018).
Pompeo also discussed the imprisonment of two journalists with the Myanmar officials. On Sept. 3, Myanmar police arrested Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both Myanmar nationals and Reuters journalists, while they were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims after the discovery of a mass grave. Myanmar’s case against the journalists cited a 90-year-old law, the Official Secrets Act, that originated under British colonial rule (NPR, “Reuters Journalists In Myanmar Convicted, Sentenced To 7 Years,” 09.03.2018).
At their trial, a police captain testified that the case against the journalists was a setup. He was sentenced to a year in prison for his statement. The journalists received a sentence of seven years for trying to obtain confidential state documents. As members of the independent Myanmar Press Council Myint Kyaw expressed, “This decision is a warning that no journalist can report freely about the Rakhine issue” (The New York Times, “Myanmar Sentences Reuters Journalists to 7 Years in Prison,” 09.03.18).
At a forum in Vietnam in September of this year, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that the reporters had been arrested for a violation of the law and not for a free expression of journalism. The case has drawn international criticism of the condition of Myanmar’s power structures. Aung San Suu Kyi has the ability to pardon the journalists, but to her critics, the case is another example of her decision to suppress dissent (The New York Times, “From Hero to Pariah, Aung San Suu Kyi Dashes Hopes About Myanmar,” 09.29.2018).
When she came to power in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi offered the promise of reclaiming Myanmar from a military junta through a progressive democracy, but international opinion of her has fallen since then. The oppressive military rule began in 1962 after it ousted Prime Minister U Nu who aimed to lead a Buddhist, non-aligned state during the Cold War. Aung San Suu Kyi was an opposition leader against the military rule, which placed her under house arrest for 15 years (BBC, “Myanmar country profile,” 09.03.2018).
The military retained legislative authority and autonomy from the civilian state’s control under the constitutional system that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power. However, the U.N. document that criticized the military implicated her, claiming that she has not used her power as counsellor to stop the military from committing atrocities (The New York Times, “From Hero to Pariah”).
Various political powers have persecuted the Rohingya since the time of British colonial rule, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has defended the killing and expulsion of the Rohingya under the guise of a fight against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In 2017, ARSA claimed responsibility for attacks against police and the military. In the crackdown that ensued, the miliary killed an estimated 6,700 Rohingya in the first month (CNN, “UN granted access to Rohingya villages in Rakhine state,” 09.13.2018).
Aung San Suu Kyi’s association with the violence has resulted in diplomatic consequences. In 2007, she received honorary citizenship from Canada while advocating for democracy during her time under house arrest. Only five other people have received the same honor from Canada, including Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and the Dalai Lama (Aljazeera, “Canada strips Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi of honorary citizenship,” 09.28.2018).
Canada’s House of Commons, though, cast a unanimous vote on Thursday, Sept. 27 to revoke the honor. While the Canadian Senate still has to approve the decision, the vote came after the House of Commons officially declared the violence in the Rakhine State to be genocide (The New York Times, “Canada’s Parliament Moves to Strip Honor for Myanmar’s Leader,” 09.28.2018).
While the United States has not given such honors to Myanmar leadership, it has gradually lifted sanctions that targeted the military government. Language has remained central to U.S. relations with the country. Beyond the recent debate over the use of the word genocide, the United States has not yet officially recognized the change Myanmar made to its name in 1989. The State Department and other U.S. agencies still refer to Myanmar as Burma, a name that reflects the country’s Burmese ethnic majority (U.S. Department of State, “Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Fact Sheet: US relations with Burma,” 07.17.2018).