Whither U.S. Myanmar Policy after the Rohingya Crisis?
May 2, 2018
March 30 marked the second anniversary since the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi took office in Myanmar, an event marked by domestic and international jubilation after decades of struggle for democracy. But today, two years later, the view of much of the international community toward the Myanmar government has pivoted to near-pariah status after ruthless military operations prompted nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees to flee vicious abuses following an attack by Rohingya militants on August 25, 2017.
U.S. policy for decades was focused on seeking leverage to cajole Myanmar out of isolation into greater engagement as a more “normal” country that would transition from military rule to democracy, resolve its raft of ethnic conflicts, and respect the international norms of human rights. Despite landmark elections and the rise to power of Aung San Suu Kyi, today Myanmar again risks falling back under Western condemnation and isolation and losing many of the gains it has made.
Will it be possible for Myanmar to pull itself back from the brink of another round of isolation, continued ethnic violence, and economic stagnation? The Rohingya crisis again has created a sharp policy challenge for the United States focused around the dilemma of engagement versus isolation to achieve the larger goal of movement toward democracy and respect for human rights. But the issues today are more complicated than they were 30 years ago because Myanmar’s neighbors, China, India, Japan, and the countries of Southeast Asia are fully engaging Myanmar and have no interest in supporting isolation.
The treatment of the Rohingya is horrifying and a giant step back for the country, but it is also important to put these developments into Myanmar’s broader political, social, and historical context. It is vital to look at how reform is going beyond what unfolded in northern Rakhine State and examine the state of play in other parts of the country.