US Reorients Policy Towards Myanmar After Tillerson Visit – Analysis


By Gautam Sen*

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had undertaken a short visit to Myanmar in mid-November. During the visit, he advised the Myanmar government to investigate the human rights violations in Rakhine and implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan advisory Commission (KAC) set up by Naypyidaw for obtaining a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of the province. Tillerson also announced an additional tranche of US $ 47 million in humanitarian aid, enhancing total US assistance for Myanmar in 2017 to $ 87 million. It is to be seen how US policy unfolds in the light of Tillerson`s observations, and impacts the situation regarding the Rohingyas still in Rakhine province as well as those displaced and presently sheltered in adjoining countries. The Aung San Su Kyi government’s reaction to Tillerson`s observations has been rather muted with nothing substantive stated in response.

The manner in which the situation in Rakhine is evolving does not engender much hope for the Rohingya community. The recent visit to Naypyidaw of the foreign minister of Bangladesh, the country which is presently sheltering nearly a million Rohingya refugees, to work out some mechanism for reversing the outward migration of the Rohingyas has not heralded any significant change in Myanmar`s policy on the return and rehabilitation of these refugees. An agreement just concluded between Bangladesh and Myanmar on Rohingya repatriation has already run into difficulty, with Myanmar`s minister for resettlement and welfare indicating that only 300 refugees will be taken back per day. There is no clarity regarding their post-return living conditions in Rakhine. And Rohingya outward migration continues. In this backdrop, it is to be observed whether the US government can induce some change in the posture and policies of the Myanmar government towards undoing the physical devastation caused by state-sponsored and ethnic violence targeting the Rohingya in Rakhine, and increase the confidence level of the limited number of the people of this community still living in the area.

The Trump administration could succeed to an extent in cajoling the Aung San Suu Kyi government to start a credible rehabilitation process given the substantial economic assistance that the US is in a position to provide Myanmar, apart from the support it could extend to Myanmar at international fora towards staving off widespread criticism of atrocities against the Rohingya. Since 2012, the US has provided more than US $ 500 million in aid to Myanmar and partnered with member countries at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to promote critical developmental assistance and investment to the tune of nearly $ 3.8 billion to that country. It may be appropriate if the US were to complement its substantial humanitarian and economic assistance by encouraging or even exerting pressure on Myanmar to implement the KAC recommendations. The exertion of such leverage may be an appropriate method to ensure that Naypyidaw starts the rehabilitation process in Rakhine in a visible and effective manner under some international oversight. In the present circumstances and in the light of past developments, it is doubtful that the Myanmar government would on its own and in an even handed manner execute the rehabilitation process unless goaded to do so by important members of the international community. Tillerson, during his visit, had opined against sanctions on Myanmar, at this stage.

Another factor which apparently will impinge on US policy towards Myanmar pertinent to the Rohingya issue is China’s expanding interest and involvement in the matter. Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently opined that, in the interest of the successful implementation of the `One Belt One Road` initiative, China would like the distraction caused by the Rohingya crisis to be dealt with through a three-step approach. But China has so far neither elaborated upon the contours of the approach nor outlined the course of implementable action to deal with the basic causes of the problem. There is no hint that Beijing has any intrinsic interest towards substantively turning around the miserable plight of the Rohingyas who, today, do not seem to have any prospect of reclaiming even their residential, non-citizen, status in Myanmar. While the Bangladesh government is obviously pleased with the Chinese assertion, it is still to realize the overall import of Chinese policy on alleviating the present and increasing Rohingya refugee burden both politically and economically. The Trump administration, however, may not like to leave Myanmar under increasing Chinese influence.

Chinese mediatory efforts between Bangladesh and Myanmar may lead to some enumeration of the Rohingyas in Bangladeshi camps as well as organized albeit forcible return of some of the refugees to designated camps in Rakhine without providing them the opportunity for engaging in livelihood maintenance activities of their choice and even observing social customs. Such a milieu may suit the present Myanmar government without raising the hackles of the majority Burman community in the affected Rakhine province, and to a limited extent also Bangladesh if a few thousands of refugees can be repatriated to Rakhine. However, with China’s involvement in western Myanmar, a greater inflow of Chinese men and material for development projects and infrastructure in the area would result, with a concomitant increase in Chinese influence on the regime in Naypyidaw. The US government will have to adroitly craft its policy on Myanmar and the Rohingya issue so that it is able to contend with the burgeoning Chinese influence, enhance its stake in Myanmar`s socio-economic development and alleviate the plight of the Rohingyas from a humanitarian angle.

Post the Tillerson visit and the fact-finding tour of a Congressional delegation led by Senator Jeff Merkley, the Trump administration seems to have hardened its posture on Myanmar`s handling of the Rohingya crisis. Tillerson`s official statement from the US State Department on 22 November, while indicating support at the UN General Assembly Third Committee and the Security Council for constructive action, has also indicated Washington`s intention to pursue accountability (in Myanmar, of its government and others involved) through US law, including targeted sanctions. Tillerson has conveyed strong observations to the effect that horrendous atrocities against the Rohingyas have taken place, inter-alia describing the situation in northern Rakhine as marked by ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses by Myanmar`s military and local vigilantes, warranting an independent investigation on the happenings and possible targeted sanctions. It may be realistic if the US government were to act decisively through its aid providing mechanism to induce Myanmar to start the rehabilitation process under the KAC framework and international supervision. China may also be brought into such an arrangement so that its scope to charter an independent course on Myanmar, driven exclusively by its economic and strategic interests, are circumscribed. Naypyidaw may be compelled to acquiesce in the process. Such a turn of events may not be inimical to the interests of Bangladesh and India also.

About the author:
*Gautam Sen
is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments with Government of India and a State Government. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

This article was published by IDSA.

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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