It makes both moral and strategic sense for the U.S. to back Burma’s persecuted minority.
As the Western world turns to thoughts of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and the fantasy in lights, a sinister drama continues in Burma. The United States, doubly distracted by “news” that used to parade as tabloid gossip, has attempted to shine a small light on the tragedy. The tragedy of the Rohingya people dwarfs any domestic story in the Western world, and save for the menace of North Korea, China, terrorism and Russia, internationally as well. Ultimately, the disaster is submerged in a sea of chatter.
The news has often focused on the faltering reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in a political battle with General Min Aung Hlaing; it has been speculated that her indifference or silence is the price she must pay to stay in her precarious position of power. The atrocities committed by the Burmese military against the Rohingya have been chronicled many times over and include mass killing, concentration camps, rape, arson, and property theft. During any reasonable period, we would simply use the term genocide. This has resulted in the flight of 625,000 Rohingya (about 2/3 of their population), primarily to the squalor of refugee camps in impoverished Bangladesh.
The Burmese Buddhist majority accounts for 69 percent of the population and notably sided with the Japanese during World War II. The Rohingya stayed loyal to the allied side. In 1947, the British helped to orchestrate the 1947 Panglong Agreement which stated: “Citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.” Rohingya received official national identity cards, many received citizenship, and some served in parliament.
But in 1962 a socialist military coup took over the Burmese government. The quasi Marxist experiment was a catastrophe, and, needing a scapegoat for their dictatorship, the Rohingya were persecuted, and a militant brand of Buddhism climbed into ascendency. The Rohingya were stripped of citizenship in 1974 and declared foreigners in 1982. This effectively made them stateless. The Burmese government consistently refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis in an effort to ostracize them.
The recent cascade of violence began in 2012. It should be remembered that the Burmese government has a penchant for murder, rape, arson and property theft against most ethnic minorities in Burma such as the predominantly Christian Kachin, the Karen and Shan.
Pope Francis avoided using the Rohingya term in November while in Burma (though he used it three months ago) for fear of antagonizing the military and harming the country’s Catholic minority. Perhaps, smarting from comparisons with Pope Pius the XII and accusations that he failed to fully condemn the human rights abuses, Francis spoke to a large crowd in Dhaka last Friday and uttered the word that was not supposed to be spoken when he stated, “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
Americans have a vested interest in the plight of the Rohingya. As the only power able to enforce international law norms, the moral values of natural law, and to keep in check the dictatorships that thrive on such violence, it is heartening to see the administration break ranks with much of the world and condemn Burma for its ethnic cleansing. This designation may lead to targeted sanctions, and hopefully the administration sees the need to push the Burmese farther, and come to heel.
If advocates of moderate Islam are serious, they would cease worrying about the dubious claims of Islamophobia and remember that America has been at the forefront of ensuring the sovereignty of many Muslim people, notably the Kosovars and Afghanis. This was done not with useless resolutions or tearful pleas, but with covert operations, American military power and gunboat diplomacy. Neither the toothless United Nations, the feckless European Union nor the circumspect Vatican will be able to stop this evil.
President Barack Obama, typical of actions during his tenure in office, relaxed rules against the Burmese tyrants without extracting real concessions, nor ensuring that Suu Kyi had actual power. President Donald Trump has called on the United Nations Security Council to take “strong and swift” action, but China’s vote at a minimum will prevent this.
Realists will also find reasons to push the Burmese into moral compliance: Burma’s role in China’s imperial dreams. Both the disgraced Suu Kyi and Aung Hlaing have gone to Beijing to demonstrate fealty to the country that is their number one investor, as China uses Burma as one of its lynchpins for its One Belt-One Road hegemony. Burma will serve as a major military and strategic economic point for China, which inserted itself into the crisis as a so-called mediator after blocking a U.N. resolution condemning Burma’s actions against the Rohingya. China has no interest in the genocide, only in furthering its adventurism and influence and taking the strain off the Burmese government.
Second, realists can join democratic realists since the desperation of the Rohingya is already being exploited by foreign Islamic extremists from places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in an effort to radicalize and recruit terrorists. It is possible that these Islamic extremists could co-opt or radicalize the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which currently denies jihadist aims. The Islamic State group publication, Dabiq, claimed that the group has plans to establish a base in Bangladesh. Al-Qaida has called on Muslims to the fight as well. There are even rumors of involvement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The West, especially the United States, should not force the Rohingya to choose between survival and joining the jihadists. The Rohingya who practice a blend of Sunni and Sufi Islam are not natural partners for the extremists, and thus pose a good choice for American foreign policy combating radical Islam.
There is always an easy test for American foreign policy: If one can maximize international relations realism and liberalism, aka democratic realism, one can be assured it is a good policy. Championing the Rohingya fits this completely. The Burmese-Chinese axis can be thwarted strategically while defending the American values of freedom, natural rights and democracy.