A quick visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Wednesday represented a belated and only possibly effective measure on America’s part to address a humanitarian disaster. Myanmar’s treatment of its religious and ethnic minority, the Rohingya, borders on genocide.
Two-thirds of the Rohingya, estimated at the start of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of them at 1.1 million, have now been forced by violence by Myanmar’s armed forces and Buddhist militias out of Myanmar into Bangladesh. Bangladesh — overcrowded, poor and subject to comprehensive annual flooding — couldn’t be less well-equipped to handle the estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees. The Bangladeshis are predominantly Muslim, like the Rohingya, but are in no position to absorb refugees.
Mr. Tillerson took the occasion of his visit to raise the subject of the Rohingya, and what the Burmese did to them, with the country’s military authorities, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who still basically run the place. He also met with its better-known but less authoritative civilian leaders, at the head of whom is Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Ms. Suu Kyi, long the symbol of the Burmese people’s resistance to decades of autocratic rule by the military, has somewhat besmirched her reputation for principled rectitude by her public lack of willingness to speak up on behalf of the tormented Rohingya minority.
Mr. Tillerson also made public a pledge on the part of the United States to provide humanitarian relief for the fleeing Rohingya.
The problem was complex on an international basis. The world was reluctant to blast the Myanmar government sharply for its treatment of the Rohingya for a variety of reasons. One was that it has only relatively recently eased up in its military’s iron fist approach to its own civilians, symbolized by permitting Ms. Suu Kyi to play a role in government. Second, there was some thought that even though she had not been visible on the issue publicly, she was working on it privately and might be having an impact. Given the military’s and militias’ treatment of the Rohingya, that does not appear to have been the case.
The third reason is that the United States is concerned that Myanmar may be leaning toward China as its north star in Asia, and did not want to annoy its leaders with human rights points about its treatment of the Rohingya.
The end result is that America comes to the issue late, pretty much after the ethnic cleansing has been completed.
We can help pick up the pieces with those who have fled to Bangladesh, but, nonetheless, they have lost their homes, probably permanently, some of them their lives, and the human damage has been done. What has been allowed to happen to the Rohingya is a black mark on the report card of the whole ostensibly civilized world, including the United States.