On November 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar, the first core representative of the administration of President Donald Trump to do so. He used the visit to mostly address the still-unfolding political and humanitarian crisis concerning Rohingya Muslims based in Northern Rakhine. While in the country, he met with the two leaders who matter the most: the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), Senior General Hlaing Ming, and head of the civilian government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tillerson’s visit marked the first time that the Trump administration had prominently laid out its elusive policy on Myanmar, which was a key foreign policy priority for the Barack Obama administration.
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Tillerson spoke in a tone that was far more moderate than previous comments from Washington. In September, scathing condemnations of the Myanmar government had come not only from Trump and U.S. Permanent Representative at the UN Nikki Haley but also Tillerson himself. By moderating himself this time, Washington’s foreign policy frontman achieved a bounty of across-the-board appreciation from Myanmar’s domestic audience.
An editorial in a local daily labeled Tillerson’s handling of the Rakhine conflict “balanced and constructive.” A senior parliamentarian called his approach “constructive and acceptable.” Another veteran politician stated that his briefing shows that United States had “carefully crafted its diplomacy.” Finally, Suu Kyi herself thanked Tillerson for his “understanding of the situation.” All of this is a stark departure from the dismissive treatment that Myanmar’s political elite generally metes out to Western government representatives on sensitive national issues like the Rohingya crisis.
The lack of aggressive rhetoric set Tillerson’s tone apart from the Trump administration’s initial posturing on the issue and even the reactions of other Western governments, including the European Union (EU). Perhaps in quick realization of the complex geopolitics of the region and local political exigencies, Washington seems to have fine-tuned its Myanmar policy to say only what the latter wants to hear. This tailor-made policy, driven by a set of endemic realpolitik concerns, is, however, bereft of critical scrutiny of Myanmar’s policies and the general circumstances surrounding the Rohingya condition.
What Tillerson Did and Did Not Say
Tillerson offered a narrative that was highly bespoke in its content and measured in tone, carefully avoiding any condemnation of the Suu Kyi government, yet apprehending the military within limits. He did not use the term “Rohingya” anywhere in his press briefings, in line with Naypyidaw’s unyielding sentiments. In contrast, President Barack Obama had used the term copiously during his visit to Myanmar in 2012.
The key emphasis of Tillerson’s press briefing was the United States’ commitment to Myanmar’s democratic transition and its reaffirmation. Clearly and unsurprisingly, “democratization”remains Washington’s priority agenda in Myanmar. Implicit here is the belief that everything else can be temporarily subservient to establishing democratic processes, as mutually understood by the United States and Myanmar.
In this regard, the Trump administration considers Suu Kyi to be an indispensable component, one that Washington would never abandon, come what may. This explains the State Department’s show of great confidence for The Lady. “As far as whether or not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants to solve the crisis, I can assure you that she does,” said one State official during the trip.
However, the U.S. position on democratization remains mired in abstraction: Tillerson did not really elaborate on the specifics of the transition process or how exactly Washington interprets it in the Rohingya context (if it does at all), besides textbook tropes like “peace and reconciliation, prosperity, and greater respect for human rights.” He strategically decoupled the democratization process and the Rohingya issue, never mentioning both in the same statement. By contrast, Obama had categorically linked one to the other, arguing that democratization itself is contingent on resolution of the Rohingya issue. This delineation, although minute, is essential to understanding Washington’s evolving Myanmar policy.
Tillerson, besides promising greater collaboration in countering violent extremism, categorically traced the current cycle of violence to the “unprovoked attack” by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — a newly-formed militant group that staged the August 25 insurgent offensive in Northern Rakhine. From a purely analytical lens, this is neither an accurate nor a fair understanding. As I had argued in an earlier commentary, the ARSA offensive was a peak escalation in a protracted conflict continuum that began after the October 2016 insurgent attacks. A part of this continuum was rapid military buildup in the area and attacks against Rohingya villages by nondescript vigilante brigades. Tillerson completely obfuscated this crucial context, thus implicitly exonerating the military from its routine practice of violently marginalizing the Rohingya population.
Tillerson also expressed grief at the deaths of security forces, without any similar word of remorse at the deaths of civilians in Northern Rakhine, Rohingya and non-Rohingya alike.
Further, Tillerson expressed concern at “credible reports of widespread atrocities” by security forces and unrestrained vigilantes. However, he stopped short of using the term “ethnic cleansing” (as employed by the UN), arguing that any usage of the term would be contingent on the United States’ own investigations. He also said that the U.S. prefers targeted sanctions against individuals rather than broad economic sanctions. But Tillerson argued that even targeted penalties have to be “evidence based.”
This halfway condemnation of the Tatmadaw is very much part of his mediational approach of keeping both of Myanmar’s centers of power in the fold of engagement, and a natural outcome of his meeting with the senior general. At the same time, however, since the Trump administration has already expressed specific concern about the Tatmadaw’s obscure links with the North Korean regime, the space for criticism against the military remains legitimately open.
Tillerson, while acknowledging the ongoing dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, urged Naypyidaw to ensure “the safety and security” of those who wish to return. However, he failed to critically apprehend the entire repatriation process, which does not ensure sustainability of return within the current framework. This is mostly because of the narrow citizenship verification norms, which prevent full reintegration and thus total repatriation. Tillerson also skirted the issue of Myanmar providing political and civil rights to the Rohingya within its mainstream. Evidently, he does not want to stoke the hearth at the cost of isolating the civilian government, the military, and even the country’s politically-conscious Buddhist majority.
Finally, the most glaring pivot of Tillerson’s delicate balancing act was his demand for an independent investigation by the civilian government, rather than the UN, which was already mandated in March. He also duly acknowledged the Tatmadaw’s recently-released internal investigation report, which, as observers claim, was nothing but a patent exercise in self-exoneration. This could mean that Washington will henceforth take a softer stance in the UN Security Council with regard to any further resolutions on independent investigations of human rights abuses in Northern Rakhine. This new stance may not necessarily be an exercise of the veto, but rather decisive abstentions.
Treading With Caution?
The driving factors behind the Trump administration’s de-escalation of rhetoric with respect to Myanmar are fairly obvious. It does not want to take the risk of isolating Naypyidaw, for the costs are lofty. With the rapidly growing Chinese clout in Myanmar, thanks to the unparalleled political leverage that Beijing commands over the country’s ethnic peace process, the United States cannot afford to leave the Suu Kyi government alone at the moment.
Although Washington does not really command any significant geostrategic influence in the country at the moment, it certainly wants to preserve the growing avenues for engagement — particularly in the domains of economic and defense cooperation — for gradual consolidation.
This was also the core rationale behind Obama’s generous overtures to the Thein Sein and later the Suu Kyi government, wherein he avoided hammering the Rohingya issue on Naypyidaw for the sake of broader diplomatic engagement.
In doing so, however, the Trump administration could come across as one that is growing increasingly intimate with regimes known to openly disregard human rights: Russia, China, and the Philippines. In the longer term, this could play against the United States’ precedent-based foreign policy.
Angshuman Choudhury is Researcher and Coordinator at the South East Asia Research Program, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.