American foreign policy towards Myanmar part 2: The failure of wishful thinking

In part 1 of two articles, Professor Klafter described how in 2009, the US launched a new, idealistic foreign policy towards Myanmar, and the consequences of this approach. Part two takes its starting point in 2016, when a rash decision near the end of President Obama’s tenure in office led to the complete failure of American foreign policy towards Myanmar.

In mid-September 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to Washington to meet with President Obama to seek an increase in US government aid and the lifting of some sanctions that remained on Myanmar. A meaningful increase in US government aid would have required Congressional approval, which President Obama was unlikely to secure with both houses of Congress in Republican control. He instead said that he would restore Myanmar to the Generalized System of Preferences, which grants duty-free treatment for goods from poor and developing countries. He opined that this would result in a significant increase in American private investment in Myanmar.

The lifting of sanctions on Myanmar was controversial. The human rights community generally opposed doing so. Nevertheless, President Obama surprised Aung San Suu Kyi by announcing that he was eliminating most sanctions including on Tatmadaw officers. He justified the decision citing the “remarkable social and political transformation” in Myanmar. There had indeed been some positive changes in Myanmar, but President Obama overstated what had been achieved. The Canadian government assessed the situation and left its sanctions in place. President Obama’s decision to lift the sanctions resulted in senior Tatmadaw officers feeling they were immune from punishment. I attended the funeral of a retired Tatmadaw officer two days after President Obama’s announcement. Many Tatmadaw generals were present. When they learned that I was an American, they boasted about how they defeated US sanctions and one of them declared that he had “beat the rap.” This sense of impunity contributed to how the Tatmadaw leadership reacted to attacks that took place just a few weeks later.

On 9 October 2016, hundreds of insurgents of the Harakah al-Yaqin attacked three border posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Rakhine State. Harakah al-Yaqin killed nine border officers and captured guns, bayonets, and ammunition. Four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by them two days later. The Tatmadaw apocalyptically responded by launching “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages. As the crackdown proceeded, casualties increased and the Tatmadaw was accused of arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killing, gang rape, and looting. This was the beginning of what Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, the UN Human Rights chief, described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The sanctions should have been left in place.

The US has been playing catch up ever since trying to persuade Myanmar to cease its aggression towards the Rohingya. Those diplomatic efforts have so far failed. A key reason is because the US has been taking an “all or nothing” approach arguing that the Rohingya are a longstanding Myanmar ethnicity meriting citizenship as an indigenous people. This claim, which relies on the 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law, is problematic for the evidence is thin. The argument rests on speculation about the religious composition of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U (1429–1785), a 1799 reference to “Rooinga” used to describe a native of Arakan rather than an ethnicity in Francis Buchanan-Hamilton’s “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire.” Asiatic Researches 5 (1799), and an incorrect translation by Azeem Ibrahim of J. S. Vater’s Literatur der Grammatiken, Lexika und Wörtersammlungen aller Sprachen der Erde (1815). Ibrahim claims that Vater described “Rohingya” as a Burma ethnicity. The correct translation describes “Rooinga or Ruinga of Hindi” from neighboring East India.

Most Rakhine State Muslims were either resident in Burma during British rule or are descendants of those who were. When Burma gained independence in 1948, Muslims who had been resident under British rule were entitled to become Burmese citizens under Burma’s 1947 Constitution—and many did. However, many Muslims in what is now Rakhine State chose instead to commence a war for independence. That war lasted thirteen years and also involved Muslims from East Pakistan. By 1961, the independence drive had been defeated. A year later, General Ne Win launched a successful coup d’état and effectively made it impossible for those Muslims who had been fighting for or supporting independence to take up Burmese citizenship. Ne Win’s actions were in violation of the 1947 Burma Constitution, and the non-citizen Muslims of Rakhine State would have secured Burmese citizenship in the 1960s if it were not for his unconstitutional actions. The principal objection raised by Myanmar has concerned Muslims who entered Rakhine State after British rule. Securing Myanmar citizenship for those Muslims who qualified pursuant to the 1947 Constitution and their decedents should have been the top US priority.

When President Obama spoke at the University of Yangon in 2012, he spoke about the need to professionalise the Tatmadaw and offered US assistance. Some US training of the Tatmadaw took place soon thereafter, but it was completely withdrawn to punish the Tatmadaw for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. The US was correct to censure some Tatmadaw generals but ceasing to train other officers was a mistake. It was a lost opportunity to develop relations with and influence future leaders of the Tatmadaw.

The Trump administration abandoned the Obama administration’s multilateral approach and the belief that China could be recruited to help restore democracy to Myanmar, and was quick to criticize the Tatmadaw’s ethnic cleansing. However, the State Department announced that it continued to “incentivize further reform” in government and institutions, “empower local communities and civil society” and “strengthen…human rights and religious freedom.” What was not mentioned was that the isolation of the USDP has also continued.

On April 29, 2020, Yanghee Lee (U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar) issued a statement condemning the Tatmadaw’s continuing assaults on civilians. “Its conduct against the civilian population of Rakhine and Chin States may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she warned. American diplomatic efforts have been impotent to stop this. Indeed, in a sign of the lack of American diplomatic success, the US Congress appropriated $135 million in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, Public Law 116-260, 2021 to incentivise Myanmar to comply with the order of the International Court of Justice.

Since 2018, the economy of Myanmar has deteriorated. Between 2018 and 2020, the GDP growth rate fell from 6.83% to 4.2%, inflation grew from 5.9% to 7.5%, per capita GDP growth rate declined from 5.5% to 3.3%, and the current account balance weakened from -3.7% to -4.5%. All of these statistics date from before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Myanmar economy. The Asia Development Bank noted, “Myanmar needs to address significant gaps in infrastructure and human resources, which constrain social and economic development.”

In 2015, the US government was concerned about the possibility of the Tatmadaw rigging the election. Last year, the NLD was the culprit. On October 16, 2020, the government-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that it was cancelling voting in nine of seventeen constituencies in Rakhine State of which seven were held by the Arakan National Party and two were held by the USDP. Additional constituencies or tracts in Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Bago States also had their voting suspended. It was further announced that, contrary to English precedent that should have been followed in Myanmar, all these seats would remain vacant in the upcoming parliament. The UEC claimed that it could not guarantee security in those constituencies. Myanmar commentators, however, have noted that there were no security concerns in some of the constituencies and circumstances generally had not changed in some other constituencies compared to 2015 when the elections were permitted to proceed. U Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst found “it suspicious that the areas where the polls have been cancelled are bailiwick of ethnic political parties.”

The UEC disqualified the United Democratic Party (UDP), which was running 1,131 candidates in the general election—the second largest contingent after the NLD. The reason given was an allegation that the Party’s chairman had used an investment received from China five years earlier to support the UDP. An audit of the UDP to determine the veracity of the allegation was commenced after the UEC decision and has not yet been concluded. The government also prosecuted for sedition a USDP candidate for parliament for alleging improprieties in the way the government distributed COVID-19 relief funds. These actions were all in addition to preventing Rohingya from running for office and voting. In total, it has been estimated that more than 2.5 million ethnic voters were disenfranchised. The NLD succeeded in eliminating or stifling much of its opposition and in lowering the threshold needed to secure a majority to form the next government. The Tatmadaw has alleged additional irregularities concerning the election, the veracity of which have yet to be independently confirmed.

Why Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD chose to engage in these activities is unclear. The NLD had done poorly in the by-elections that took place since 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s and the NLD’s performance in governing has been less than stellar, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to run candidates for the first time against many ethnic party incumbents upset minority ethnicities. It would have been reasonable to fear a loss of some parliamentary seats. However, given the NLD’s overwhelming majority in the Parliament, the NLD was unlikely to lose sufficient seats to jeopardize its ability to form the next government. The worst the NLD could expect is that it would have had to form a coalition government with one or more of the minority ethnic parties.

Securing a fair election in Rakhine’s conflict zones

As the Arakan Army’s armed struggle appears increasingly attractive to young voters, Myanmar’s democracy cannot afford the appearance of another false promise.

In the election, the NLD won 396 seats in the country’s 664-seat bicameral Union Parliament. Voting cancellations in Shan and Rakhine states resulted in a reduction of 22 seats leaving the NLD needing to win 322 seats to retain power. The USDP won 33 seats and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy won 15 seats. The Tatmadaw holds 166 seats as per the Myanmar constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD deserve condemnation for the tactics engaged in to help secure its majority. The election was not a step in the direction towards a liberal democracy sought by the US. The Carter Foundation has raised questions about the quality of democracy the NLD’s victory represents.

After the election, the Tatmadaw and USDP alleged voter fraud focusing on people who were allegedly not authorized to vote or who may have voted more than once. They took their complaints and evidence to the UEC, which found that the irregularities were insufficient to change the outcome of the election. The Tatmadaw and USDP filed suit before the Myanmar Supreme Court, and a hearing was conducted on January 29, 2021. With the new Myanmar Parliament scheduled to begin on February 5, 2021, the Tatmadaw seized power on February 1, 2021, declared a year-long state of emergency and that commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, would lead the country.

The hope of US foreign policy in seeing a new liberal democracy flourish on China’s doorstep has not materialized, and Myanmar has returned to military rule. The Myanmar people have lost hope for democracy and many non-Bamar ethnicities (32% of the population) may resort to military action to press their interests. As for the problems that Green and Mitchell identified to justify their proposed policy, all remain ongoing concerns.

President Obama’s lifting of sanctions on Tatmadaw officers had the unintended consequence of emboldening those who perpetrated the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya. President Obama appears to have considered his administration’s engagement with Myanmar and support of Aung San Suu Kyi a failure. His historic visit to the country and lifting of sanctions are not mentioned among the Barak Obama Presidential Library website’s otherwise exhaustive timeline of President Obama’s accomplishments.

The continued isolation of the Tatmadaw and USDP during the Trump administration has now backfired leaving the US with limited contact with Tatmadaw and USDP officials, and China and Russia have improved their relationships while the US has been disengaged. American foreign policy towards Myanmar is in a worse position today than it was in 2007.

American foreign policy has not been the only foreign policy to fail in Myanmar, but no other was developed with as lofty goals and no other assumed such a leadership role in the Western world. That policy now needs to be overhauled and realism should be the guiding principle.

More on Myanmar

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The current restricted environment for CSOs, especially those advocating on human rights and accountability, is almost certain to continue in post-2020 Myanmar.

Myanmar’s electoral management institutions: the challenges of monitoring

In 2020 the role of the Union Election Commission and election monitoring seems increasingly politicised.

The hidden heterogeneity of Rohingya refugees

Reductive narratives about the Rohingya trafficked by governments, NGOs and Rohingya leaders themselves contribute to the exclusion of some refugees from rights and protection.

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