The Next Problem from Hell: The US and Myanmar’s Rohingya People

In Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, the journalist-turned-US Ambassador to the United Nations passionately argued that the United States is guilty of having consistently ignored the genocides of the 20th century. Despite similar patterns that precede outright genocide, Washington has systematically justified nonintervention for nearly a century.

In Myanmar (Burma), a country emerging from more than four decades of isolated military rule, worrying signs are taking root. Violent riots, incitement, and forcible deportation of northwest Myanmar’s Rohingya people are laying the familiar groundwork for a more sinister crime. This is being largely ignored by most international players, who have instead been quick to bestow lavish praise on Myanmar’s new civilian government. Ms. Power may now be in a position to influence American foreign policy, but with eyes fixed on the greater geopolitical prize of a friendly Myanmar, Washington is unlikely to intervene in any meaningful capacity.

“You cannot sleep next to a mad dog.”

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority located primarily in the northern part of Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where they comprise 90% of the population. The current bout of instability erupted in June 2012, when five Rohingya men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist Rakhine woman. Riots broke out between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities, which were soon quelled by the Burmese military.  The hardline Buddhist 969 movement has since taken the lead against the Rohingya. Led by Buddhist monk Wirathu, they argue that the high birthrates of the Rohingya will lead to the “Islamisation” of Myanmar.

Ethnic cleansing has become commonplace. Much of the Rohingya population has been evicted from their homes by Rakhine mobs, and forced into cramped ghettos and UN-run refugee camps. The state capital of Sittwe, a city where Buddhists and Muslims had lived together until only a year ago, is now completely devoid of its Rohingya population. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries, including 200,000 to Bangladesh.

Rohingya disenfranchisement stems from their official government status. Though the country has long been mired in a series of ethnic conflicts, Myanmar recognizes 135 distinct minority groups within the country. The Rohingya however, due to their close linguistic and ethnic ties with Bengalis, are classified as undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, and are thus denied citizenship. Some 800,000 Rohingya are stateless, holding few rights in Myanmar. Burmese President Thein Sein – one of the country’s key reformers – has himself stated that “there are no Rohingya among the races”, and referred to the Rohingya as illegal immigrants.

Ashin Wirathu, Burmese Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of the nationalist 969 Movement.

“Enlightened self-interest”

On a moral basis alone, Washington is unlikely to take any sort of forceful action against Myanmar on behalf of the Rohingya. US “interests” regionally are defined by the greater geopolitical struggle to curb Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. Experts largely agree that political liberalization in Myanmar is the result of the country’s military rulers’ desire to wean their dependence from Beijing, which had been their chief benefactor during the decades of isolation. As a result, this delicate transition could be jeopardized by sudden pressure to protect the Rohingya.

In A Problem from Hell, one of Ms. Power’s key recommendations is to appeal to Washington policymakers’ sense of “enlightened self-interest” – demonstrating that a genocide represents a threat to American national interests. Such a case can easily be made for the situation in Myanmar. The flight of the Rohingya to neighbouring states is destabilizing; tens of thousands of destitute refugees are straining Thailand and Bangladesh. Officials fear that providing a welcoming atmosphere for the Rohingya will only encourage more to come. Escalation in violence would undoubtedly lead to a mass exodus, which could push these countries to the brink.

Rohingya refugees at the Bangladeshi border.

Perhaps more worrying is the potential to spark strife between Buddhist and Muslim communities across Asia; something that may already be starting.

In Colombo, Sri Lanka, a mosque belonging to the tiny Muslim minority was attacked by a Buddhist mob, leaving 12 injured. Thailand has grappled with an Islamist insurgency for years which, though largely confined to its southern provinces, could be inflamed by an uptick in regional Buddhist-Muslim tensions. And the Philippines, inching closer to ending its own decades-long Islamist rebellion, could see its hard-fought peace efforts evaporate. In short, a string of Islamist insurgencies would sap the resources of American allies to resist Chinese assertiveness. The stakes are high enough for Washington to deem the Rohingya crisis a threat to its “national interests.”

What to do?

Though fears of Myanmar drifting back into China’s orbit are well-founded, the end of 45 years of military rule and political liberalization is not occurring in a vacuum. Those pulling the strings in the capital of Naypyidaw are, as with many of their neighbours, fearful of Chinese assertiveness and hegemony. The deep-rooted Chinese interests in Myanmar, such as the 800km Sino-Burma natural gas pipeline and the massive Myitsone dam mean that Beijing is loathe to see a longtime ally slip through its fingers and join the burgeoning group of pro-American countries in Southeast Asia. This is an angle that could be leveraged against Myanmar’s leaders to halt the anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine.

Samantha Power’s influence at the White House was said to have been a decisive factor in the decision to intervene in Libya. Though human rights advocates received an inkling of hope for an American foreign policy more focused on human security, the years since Libya have shown the Obama administration to be as realist as its predecessors. If Washington is conceptualizing its Southeast Asia policy in pure realpolitik, namely balancing against China, allowing the persecution of Rohingya could derail these plans. Only by forcing the White House to view it as a threat to its long-term goals will there be any chance of substantive action on behalf of the Rohingya.

Daniel Bodirsky

About Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: danielbodirsky@gmail.com Twitter: @danbodirsky