US policy on Rohingya issue

By Aman Ullah

“I think one of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is. And the Rohingya have been discriminated against. And that’s part of the reason they’re fleeing.”  Obama
In November 2012, when President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma also officially call Myanmar , President Thein Sein made 11 specific commitments to strengthen human rights protections, including provisions related to religious freedom, political prisoners, ethnic reconciliation, non-proliferation, good governance, and human trafficking. These commitments include taking decisive action in Rakhine state and allowing international humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas. (Thein Sein’s 11 Promises to Obama,” United to End Genocide, November 19, 2013) In a May 2013 visit to the United States, President Thein Sein and his senior ministers reaffirmed their intention to uphold these commitments, though many of them remain only partially fulfilled.

Despite Myanmar’s failure to follow through with these commitments, the US under President Barack Obama has not leveraged the full weight of its influence on Myanmar to protect the Rohingya.

Rather, the US has pursued only limited measures to hold Mr. Thein Sein’s government accountable. Washington has engaged in direct talks with Naypyidaw, urging the state to end human rights abuses against the Rohingya. For example, on May 20, 2013, during a bilateral meeting in Washington, President Obama “urged President Thein Sein to take strong action to combat sectarian violence and to ensure respect for religious freedom.”  On October 10, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated President Obama’s message to President Thein Sein on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan. Senior former and current US officials, including former Presidents Carter and Clinton and former Secretary of State Albright, raised similar concerns during their visits to Myanmar. US embassy officials at all levels discussed the importance of addressing sectarian violence and religious freedom with high-level Myanmar government leaders and religious leaders throughout 2013. For example, US Ambassador Mitchell hosted an interfaith event in September “for leaders of all major religious groups to discuss ways to promote religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.” On October 1, he also “spoke out against sectarian violence at an interfaith conference in Myanmar.”

However, these actions have not effectively influenced Naypyidaw to protect its Muslim Rohingya population. Since the US prematurely removed most of its sanctions against Myanmar in 2012, the Obama administration’s leverage to improve human rights in the country has been diminished. Rather, the human rights of the Rohingya have since deteriorated dramatically with no movement in sight for progress. (“U.S. Can’t Ease up on Burma Now,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2014)  On May 7, 2014, the US House of Representatives passed a Resolution with bipartisan support calling on the Myanmar government to end persecution of the Rohingya and to recognize the human rights of all religious minorities. It also called on “the United States Government and the international community to put consistent pressure on the Government of Burma to take all necessary measures to end the persecution and discrimination of the Rohingya population.” (H.Res. 418, 113th)   This Resolution represents growing concern in Congress with the Obama administration’s engagement with Myanmar despite its continued human rights violations.

Despite the US House of Representatives’ call for action, the Obama administration has not discussed a return to sanctions. The normalization of relations with Myanmar is viewed as a vital foreign policy success for the White House.

Furthermore, Myanmar is a significant partner in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” foreign policy, as this partnership is an important element of President Obama’s goal to increase US military presence in Southeast Asia. To this end, the US is pursuing military-to-military cooperation with Myanmar. (Patrick Barta, “Why the U.S. Needs Myanmar,” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2012) The US government is also focusing on the support Myanmar can provide in its role as the 2014 chair of ASEAN in mediating territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In addition to the political and strategic gains that partnership with Myanmar represents, the US also seeks to benefit economically from positive relations by enabling American firms to invest in the country. American oil firms are particularly keen to explore Myanmar’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which foreign experts estimate to be on par with Brazil’s reserves.( The Economist, March 19, 2014)

For all these political, strategic, and economic reasons, President Obama has not held President Thein Sein accountable to his commitment to protect the Rohingya. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column assessed that the US government had not effectively stood up against atrocities in Myanmar, because “attacks have continued almost unabated with little or no consequences for the killers.”(December 31, 2013)Thus, the US has not pursued all peaceful means to end the human rights abuses against the Rohingya as required by the RtoP till today

However, when more than 3,600 migrants had washed ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand since May 10, and thousands more was believed to be trapped at sea. The United Nations has warned that time is running out to save them. Navy ships were scouring Southeast Asian waters for boats believed to be carrying thousands of migrants with little food or water, and a top US diplomat said Myanmar needs to shoulder some responsibility for the crisis. That’s something it has been reluctant to do.

The United State voiced concern and lambasted Burma, officially called Myanmar, for failing to address the root cause of the crisis, which observers say stems largely from the government’s refusal to recognize the Muslim minority as lawful citizens.

“What needs to change here is that the Rohingya need to feel welcome in the country of their birth, in the country of their parents’ birth, of their grandparents’ birth,”…. “They need to be treated as citizens with dignity and human rights.” Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, told CNN during his recent interview.

After reports of the negative consequences of Thailand’s crackdown on trafficking–first the discovery of mass graves in Thailand then the stranding of migrants at sea–came to light in early-May, the U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Jeff Rathke said, “we urge the countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea,” a statement which places the responsibility for the boat people squarely on the shoulders of countries in the region.

“This is an emergency that we believe needs to be addressed with appropriate speed and resolve through a regionally coordinated effort to save the lives of the thousands of vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers,” he added. When asked whether the United States was doing anything more than just pointing at the region, Rathke responded, “Well, we’re not asking countries to do things when we’re not doing something ourselves. We have been putting resources into this effort. As we’ve talked about earlier this week, since Fiscal Year 2014 and into this fiscal year we’ve provided $109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese. That includes Rohingya, and that money has gone to programs in Burma and in the region.”

On May 20th, with international attention mounting, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf held another press conference where she unveiled a potentially more prominent role for the United States. She stated that the United States was prepared to take a leading role in organizing a multi-country effort to resettle the most vulnerable refugees. After Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take in the refugees temporarily, the United States pledged $3 million in assistance.

Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also pledged to bring up the Rohingya issue on his already-scheduled visit to Burma. His stated goal was to pressure the government to improve conditions for the Rohingya and cooperate with Bangladesh and other regional actors to help those adrift in the sea. According to him, ‘the Rohingya Muslims fleeing the predominantly Buddhist nation were risking perilous journeys and putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers because “they are in despair and don’t see a future”‘ at home.’ They have been denied citizenship and chased off their land in the latest bout of ethnic violence that left them with little access to education, medical care or freedom to move around. He said Rohingya Muslims “should have a path to citizenship,” adding: “The uncertainty that comes from not having any status is one of the things that may drive people to leave.”

The United States, which initially insisted it was a regional problem, has in recent days also become involved. Washington has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering the migrants and they also sent “maritime aviation patrols throughout the region,” Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Jeffrey Pool told that the Department of Defense “is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously”.

On May 21, Reps. Joe Crowley (D-NY) and Steve Chabot (R-OH) along with 21 other bipartisan members of the House of Representatives, announced they sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the United States to take additional actions to help save Rohingya migrants stranded at sea as well as address the underlying root of the crisis, including the discriminatory religious laws and official policies championed by Burma’s current government that contribute to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

The letter calls on the U.S. to deploy humanitarian assistance, which would include aerial imagery and sea assets if necessary, to rescue the migrants. It also urges the U.S. to implore allies in the region to accept the refugees and provide them safe harbor.

“We believe it is time for a decisive and public response from the United States and like-minded countries. Specifically, we strongly urge the U.S. to provide search and rescue support and humanitarian assistance in coordination with regional partners to ensure the safety of the thousands in danger at sea,” wrote the lawmakers in the letter.

The letter continues: “We urge the U.S. government to make every effort to prevent the Andaman Sea from becoming a graveyard for thousands more if further steps are not taken to address this crisis.”

In the letter, the members urge the State Department to address the root of the current crisis, including speaking out against Burma’s current government’s championing of religious discrimination legislation that has helped fuel the persecution of the Rohingya. The letter also urges consideration of downgrading Burma’s status in the State Department’s Trafficking in Person report which would make it subject to penalties and denial of benefits.

“For too long, the international community has accepted limited, easily-reversed progress on human rights in Burma while the underlying persecution of the Rohingya continues. Action must be taken to address the immediate crisis, and comprehensive action needs to be taken to address the policies in Burma that are at the root of this crisis,” wrote the lawmakers.

The top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are among the signatories of the letter, which was provided Thursday to The Associated Press. Lawmakers provide oversight, but don’t set U.S. foreign policy.  (Matthew Pennington, Washington)

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed US concern over the “urgency of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis” in talks with President U Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw, on that day (May 21) and urged Myanmar’s government to work with its regional partners to address the migrant crisis in Southeast Asia.

At the same time the US has made clear it will continue to engage with Myanmar and support its transition from military rule. The US embassy tweeted that Mr Blinken expressed backing for the president’s democratic reforms and the upcoming general election.

The embassy in Yangon posted on Facebook that Blinken shared the U.S. government’s concerns about the migrant crisis. State Department officials in Washington said earlier that the U.S. was willing to lead multi-country efforts organized by the U.N. refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable migrants.

Blinken said earlier on his trip to Southeast Asia that the only sustainable solution to the problem was addressing the conditions that led the Rohingya to flee.

Earlier, Myanmar hinted it might skip the May 29 meeting in Bangkok in neighboring Thailand , which will bring together more than a dozen governments from Southeast Asia and beyond. They want to discuss the root causes of the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi migrants, thousands of whom have been stranded at sea.

In response to pressure, Myanmar has abandoned its hard-line rhetoric of denying any role in the crisis unfolding in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, where the UN believes some 4000 people are still stranded in desperate conditions. Myanmar has confirmed that it would attend the conference in Thailand.

Myanmar’s presidential office director, Zaw Htay, said on that day (May 21) that his government will take part in talks about human smuggling and illegal migration. (Robin McDowell, Yangon)

Diplomats said there would be continued pressure on Myanmar to deal with the “root causes” of the crisis in Rakhine State, where stateless Rohingya have no freedom of movement and limited access to schooling and healthcare. Many live in camps that a UN special rapporteur this year described as “abysmal”.

During the May 29 Special Meeting in Bangkok, United State announced that, they will contribute $3 million to IOM in support of its appeal to address the irregular migrants as sea crisis. This assistance to vulnerable migrants will complement the nearly $109 million in humanitarian assistance that the U.S. Government is providing for vulnerable Burmese, including the Rohingya, in Burma and the region since Fiscal Year 2014.

As a lead to both resettlement and refugee assistance worldwide, the United States is — and has always been — prepared to take a leading role in any UNHCR-led multi-country resettlement effort for the most vulnerable.”

U.S. President Barack Obama said on the 1st June, that Myanmar needed to end discrimination against the Rohingya people if it wanted to succeed in its transition to a democracy. Obama has sought to make Myanmar’s transition to democracy a legacy of his presidency, and Washington is stepping up pressure on the Southeast Asian nation to tackle what it sees as the root causes of an exodus of migrants across the Bay of Bengal that the region has struggled to cope with.

“Rohingyas need to be treated as citizens of Burma,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard told reporters at a press briefing in Jakarta on 2nd June, using the country’s former name. “They need to have identity cards and passports that make clear they are as much citizens of Burma as anyone else.”

Politicians in Myanmar were focused on a historic general election scheduled for November, Richard said, which was hindering political discussion of the status of the Rohingya, who are deeply resented by many of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority.

Richard said she would like to see all Myanmar’s political leaders address the issue. Opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to speak out on behalf of the nation’s many ethnic groups, including the Rohingya.

“We would love to see all Burmese leaders speak up on human rights and to realize that they should help the Rohingya,” Richard said. “The boats are not going to wait until December – the people on the boats need help right now.”

Richard said that the United States was not considering imposing sanctions on Myanmar over the issue, but that sanctions were always “in the diplomatic toolbox”.

Obama has invested significant personal effort and prestige in promoting democracy in Myanmar, which emerged from 49 years of military rule in 2010, travelling there twice in the past three years.

The U.S. president said in a routine note to Congress last month that Washington – while not curtailing engagement with Myanmar – would maintain some sanctions on the country.

“We really hope we are working with a Burma that is on a path to being a more responsible member of the international community,” Richard said.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, the U.S. military has begun conducting maritime surveillance flights off the west coast of Malaysia, supporting efforts to search for thousands of migrants believed stranded at sea on rickety wooden boats.

“In consultation with governments in the region, the U.S. on May 24 began conducting maritime surveillance flights off the west coast of Malaysia,” said embassy spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney in a statement sent via e-mail to VOA News.

“The flights are consistent with our offer to assist governments in the region to improve their understanding of the situation in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.”

In the first series of surveillance missions, the U.S. Pacific Command directed a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft, operating out of Subang, Malaysia, to fly over the Andaman Sea and adjacent waters, searching for vessels, a Pentagon official told VOA. Additional flights may occur as necessary, the official said.

The United States has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering thousands of vulnerable migrants.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press Thursday (May 21) that the Defense Department “is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously. We are preparing to stand up maritime aviation patrols throughout the region and working with local partners to help with this issue.” He provided no further details.

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