Barack Obama was determined to open up to Myanmar. Now the country’s military is slaughtering its most vulnerable ethnic group. Could the United States have prevented it?
The Moynarghona refugee camp, a claustrophobic, chaotic mass of bamboo and tarpaulin shacks, slumps over hillsides stripped bare of vegetation. Scrawny teenage boys in T-shirts and sarongs linger on its edges, staring aimlessly at trucks and rickshaws skidding by. To wander inside the camp is to have your senses assaulted—by the chatter of a thousand half-naked toddlers, the stench of raw sewage, the bitter taste of dust. The heat, which can climb toward 90 degrees during the winter season, only adds to the misery. But the air is stifling mostly because this place, this supposed refuge, has been sucked empty of hope.
Moynarghona is one of several such camps to spring up or expand in southern Bangladesh since August 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing a military-led crackdown in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma. The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, primarily in the country’s Rakhine state, and have long faced severe discrimination from the Buddhist majority, which views them as illegal migrants. But this latest wave of violence is the worst in modern memory. On August 25, after a Rohingya insurgent group killed a dozen members of Myanmar’s security forces, the military retaliated with outsize brutality—burning villages, raping women and slaughtering anyone in the way. Of the 1.1 million Rohingya thought to live in Myanmar prior to last summer, more than 680,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, by land and by boat. Thousands of others are believed to have been killed, although just how many remains unknown because Myanmar has restricted access to the conflict zone. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called the crisis “ethnic cleansing.” More recently, a top United Nations official said it bears “the hallmarks of a genocide.”
The village of Tula Toli in northern Rakhine state was the scene of some of the worst violence in the days after August 25. Uniformed troops charged the village, shot or hacked the men to death, and raped the women, locked them in houses and set the houses on fire. Children were not spared: Security forces tossed them into the flames or the river bordering the village, several Rohingya who escaped told me. Among the survivors was a young mother, Laila Begum, who ran for the river with her children as the security forces closed in. Begum lost hold of her 3-year-old son in the chaos. Then, as she jumped into the water to get away, an assailant tore her 18-month-old daughter out of her arms. Back on land, Begum stumbled on the body of a woman whose throat had been slashed. Next to the body sat a dazed little girl covered in blood. Begum grabbed the girl and ran, joining other Rohingya in the exodus to Bangladesh. When I met them in Moynarghona, the round-faced girl, who looked around 2 years old, called Begum “ma.” Begum called the girl Yasmeen.
Begum sat in a dark, dusty hut with clothing hung behind her. Her eyes grew blank and her voice turned soft as she tried to describe what she’d lost. “When I think of my daughter and my son, I don’t even want to hear the word ‘Myanmar,’” she said. “It was a torturous place for us.”
Hundreds of villages were attacked in the weeks after August 25. The assaults could last hours, leaving scores of burned or maimed corpses behind. Multiple Rohingya escapees said they saw the bodies of women whose breasts had been sliced off. Such accounts from survivors are difficult to verify independently, but the stories I heard in the camps match what human rights groups and the United Nations have discovered: gruesome reports of rape, arson and murder at the hands of Myanmar’s military, other security forces and Buddhist vigilantes.
It’s a moral disaster, but also a geopolitical one. The violence against the Rohingya has inflamed ethnic and religious tensions across South and Southeast Asia, while also fraying diplomatic ties between Myanmar and the world’s Muslim-majority countries. It is straining the resources of Bangladesh, already desperately poor, and deepening the global migration crisis, which has seen a record 65 million people displaced from their homes. There are also fears that Rohingya youth could radicalize and join Islamist terrorist groups, who, even before 2017, were increasingly mentioning the Rohingya in their propaganda.
The violence has also upended what was supposed to be an American success story—the much-fêted opening to an increasingly democratic Myanmar, championed by a U.S. president, Barack Obama, eager to make friends of old enemies willing to change their behavior. For Obama’s former advisers, some of whom fought to lift sanctions on Myanmar, it is a slow-rolling disaster that gnaws at their consciences. The country’s political transition has meant new rights, freedoms and opportunities for millions in Myanmar. But for the Rohingya, it has meant despair. “Whenever I close my eyes, I see the people I lost,” one 21-year-old Rohingya rape victim said. “I don’t see any future.”
Washington, D.C., was having a party.
On September 15, 2016, America’s political and business elite gathered at the Four Seasons in Georgetown to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s beloved icon of democracy, on her visit to the U.S. capital. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who had spent years under house arrest for resisting Myanmar’s military junta, had seen her party win a surprisingly free election in 2015 and was now the country’s de facto civilian leader.
The day before the Four Seasons bash, Obama had pledged to do away with the last major economic sanctions on Myanmar—the final big step in a rapprochement that had begun in 2009 and included a significant easing of sanctions in 2012. Sitting next to Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, Obama cited the progress the country had made toward democracy. Scrapping sanctions, he said, “is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.” In her speech the following evening, Suu Kyi urged businesses to invest in Myanmar to help its people as well as its nascent political transition. “We have to prove that democracy works, and what will prove that democracy works is a visible and sustainable improvement in the lives of our people,” she said. The mood in the room was giddy: Halfway across the world, democracy was on the march.
But not everyone in the crowd was optimistic. Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, believed Myanmar’s military still controlled too many levers of power to merit clearing sanctions. Malinowski had spent a good deal of time in 2016 pushing back against Obama administration colleagues who wanted the sanctions gone—marking the latest battle in a larger internal struggle over Myanmar policy that had intensified over the previous seven years. On one side was Malinowski’s bureau at the State Department, which worried the U.S. opening was moving too fast; on the other was the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, which was happy with the rapid pace of the rapprochement, and Ben Rhodes, the influential Obama aide known for pushing the narrative that America should engage rogue regimes in hopes of changing their behavior. Ultimately, Obama had sided with the Rhodes camp.
The disagreements confused Suu Kyi, who, even after Obama’s announcement, was receiving mixed messages about just how far the U.S. could and would go in eliminating the economic penalties—a situation made all the more perplexing by the complications of sanctions law. Suu Kyi herself hadn’t always taken a firm position on sanctions, partly because she worried lifting them would benefit Myanmar’s generals, who are major players in the country’s economy. When Suu Kyi saw Malinowski at the Four Seasons, she asked for some clarity on the U.S. debate. “She was like, ‘What the hell? What’s going on here? What’s the reality?’” Malinowski recalled. “I said, ‘Look, at this point there’s not much more I can say. So whatever it is that you want us to do, you need to make that clear to the White House.’”
Suddenly, Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, interrupted the conversation, apparently worried that Malinowski was assuring Suu Kyi some sanctions could stay in place. Marciel, a proponent of clearing as many sanctions as possible, tried to cut off the discussion, telling Suu Kyi that it was too late to reverse the president’s decision, according to Malinowski’s recollection. (Marciel confirmed he was there, but declined to share details other than to say, “At that point, the president had already made his decision and announcement on lifting of sanctions.”) It was a heated moment, enough so that others in the room noticed before things calmed down.
In the end, Obama fulfilled his pledge. In the final months of 2016, as he prepared to make way for Donald Trump, Obama went about as far as he legally could to scrap economic sanctions on Myanmar in hopes of spurring an economic and democratic flowering.
Malinowski and his allies at State weren’t alone in doubting Obama’s decision. As the administration rolled back sanctions in late 2016, Myanmar security forces began murdering Rohingya in a vicious campaign that displaced tens of thousands—and human rights activists were appalled. They worried that Obama was so determined to fortify his legacy of outreach to adversaries that he was ignoring how far from a true democracy Myanmar still was, and how splintered a nation it remained. Some feared that the 2016 violence was a harbinger of far worse to come for the Rohingya.
The activists sent letters, arranged grass-roots campaigns and communicated their concerns in meetings with Obama aides. “We kept warning them that with each sanction they lifted, it emboldened the military to commit more human rights abuses,” said Jennifer Quigley, an official with Human Rights First who has extensive Myanmar experience. “And the Rohingya were exceptionally vulnerable, to the point where we warned they could face a genocide.”
Today, as those fears are coming true, Obama-era officials on all sides of the debate have been looking back on the decisions they made, asking themselves if they could have done anything more to prevent Myanmar’s bloody purge. Among the dozens of officials and analysts I spoke to, there’s no real consensus as to what, if anything, went wrong. But there is a sense that Obama administration officials were overly optimistic about what democracy could mean for all the people of Myanmar—that they didn’t understand the special peril Rohingya Muslims faced in a country with such complicated ethnic and religious dynamics. And all said they worry about what will happen to the Rohingya under the presidency of Trump, who has been openly hostile toward Muslims and downplayed human rights in his dealings with other countries.
“I don’t think anyone would have predicted you could push out 700,000 people,” said Derek Mitchell, who was U.S. ambassador to Myanmar for most of Obama’s second term. “We never felt that there was an imminent danger that required us to forgo a diplomatic engagement approach for a more hostile policy. We didn’t want to get rid of everything over an issue that we didn’t know would actually blow up this bad.”
The dire circumstances of 1.1 million Rohingya might not have been a deal-breaker when it came to U.S. engagement with Myanmar. But the fate of one woman was.
Suu Kyi, a slender, elegant politician often called simply “The Lady,” is the daughter of Aung San, a beloved nationalist leader who played a key role in negotiating what was then Burma’s independence from Britain in the late 1940s before he was assassinated. In 1962, while Suu Kyi was based in India with her diplomat mother, a military coup overthrew the Burmese government and ushered in a long period of oppression. The junta silenced dissent and pursued a mix of isolationism, nationalism and socialism that deepened the country’s poverty. The military leaders also engaged in a brutal civil war against an array of armed ethnic groups that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Eventually, the junta changed Burma’s name to Myanmar, partly as a break from its colonial past, and embarked on bizarre projects like carving a new capital out of the jungle deep in the country’s interior.
In 1988, Suu Kyi—by then living in Britain with her husband, whom she had met while studying at Oxford University, and their two children—returned to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother. Within months, the high-profile daughter of Aung San had become a leader in the country’s pro-democracy movement, helping establish a new political party, the National League for Democracy, and demanding more rights and freedoms through massive demonstrations. In July 1989, the junta put Suu Kyi under house arrest. The next year, with Suu Kyi still detained, the NLD won resoundingly in a general election, but the military refused to give up power.
Suu Kyi’s peaceful resistance to the government, which kept her under some form of arrest for 15 of 21 years, made her an international hero and endeared her to Western leaders. U.S. officials, who began increasingly using sanctions to penalize the junta for its anti-democratic actions, based much of their policy toward Myanmar on how Suu Kyi and her party were treated. For example, in 2003, after an alleged junta-backed attack on Suu Kyi’s motorcade, followed by her re-arrest, Congress passed new sanctions. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush called the punishment “a clear signal to Burma’s ruling junta that it must release Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, along with all other political prisoners, and move down the path toward democracy.”
Many scholars argue, however, that Myanmar’s central challenge—and the key to understanding it—is not about democracy, but whether the country can overcome its mind-boggling number of ethnic and religious conflicts. For decades, the central government and military, both dominated by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Bamar (or Burman), have battled an array of militias—sometimes thousands strong, often in uniform—fighting for the rights of the country’s various ethnic groups. Much of the fighting occurs along Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand, resource-rich areas where some ethnic groups, such as the Kachin and the Kayin, control significant territory.
But even within Myanmar’s complex patchwork of ethnic and religious identities, the Rohingya stand apart. They are uniquely hated—singled out for their Muslim faith and dark, South Asian features. Many people in Myanmar view the country, which is nearly 90 percent Buddhist, as a critical bastion for Buddhism in a region where Islam has been spreading for centuries. And they see the Rohingya as malevolent interlopers out to upend those demographics—suspicions fueled by the perception that the Rohingya have unusually high birthrates. Myanmar’s leaders do not count the Rohingya among the nation’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Most refuse even to use the term “Rohingya”; to do so would give legitimacy to a people most Burmese insist are illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh. But the more pressure they’ve faced, the more the Rohingya have clung to the label.
The exact origins of the name, and the people, are disputed. The Rohingya say many in their community can trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries to when Rakhine, a long strip of land on Myanmar’s western coast, was an independent kingdom. Other Rohingya ancestors are said to have migrated there during the colonial days, when the British encouraged migrants from British India to move to Burma. Muslims were at times favored by the British, earning resentment from Buddhists. World War II also exacerbated communal tensions in Rakhine state, as Muslims largely sided with the British while many Buddhists sided with the Japanese.
After the 1962 military coup, the junta launched a long campaign of oppression against the Rohingya that escalated at times into violent military crackdowns, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. A 1982 law effectively stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, and further laws and regulations restricted the group’s ability to marry and have children. Today, after years of junta and Buddhist propaganda, the Rohingya are loathed by most people in the country. In impoverished Rakhine state, the Rohingya also are frequent targets of their neighbors the Rakhine Buddhists, another ethnic minority that faces discrimination from the Bamar. Some Rakhine Buddhists aspire to expel all Rohingya Muslims from their state and gain more independence from the central government.
Many Rohingya have been persecuted for so long that they have no memory of anything else. When I traveled through the camps in Bangladesh, I met a woman named Gulfaraz, who estimated her age as 85. Gulfaraz was among the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in the late 1970s during a crackdown the Myanmar military called “Operation Dragon King.” She eventually returned to Myanmar. In the violence in 2017, she saw several of her relatives shot dead in her village by security forces who shouted: “You’re Bengalis! Go back to your own country! Leave this place!”
“I’ve thought of myself as Rohingya since I was a child,” she said on Christmas Day. “I feel burning pain when I think about my family. But I fear if I go back, even to look for their bodies, I will be killed.”
By the early 2000s, Myanmar’s generals seemed ready for a change. After decades of totalitarian rule, they adopted a road map to what they called a “disciplined democracy.” And in 2008, they held a flawed referendum on a constitution that, while still keeping the military entrenched in power—including giving its representatives 25 percent of parliamentary seats—allowed for partial civilian rule.
The changes in Myanmar dovetailed with the arrival of an American president intrigued by the possibility of bringing rogue regimes in from the cold, and determined to prove that engaging dictators was a more effective way to promote democracy than spurning them. Obama said as much in his first inaugural address, promising authoritarian leaders such as Myanmar’s generals that America would “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He was also determined to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, a vast region he viewed as the future of geopolitics. The need to manage the rise of China, long Myanmar’s chief patron, and reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea—which was believed to have provided missile and other defense know-how to Myanmar—added hard-headed reasons to try to midwife a democratic transformation.
“This is a country of, like, 56 million people, 55.9 million of whom had nothing to do with the government. So, there was the sense that, if there’s a possibility to effect real change, we should be in the game and not on the sidelines,” recalled Colin Willett, who dealt extensively with Myanmar while on the National Security Council and at the State Department. “The president’s attitude was: better to try and fail than not try.”
In 2009, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department led a review of Myanmar policy that concluded that diplomatic engagement should deepen but sanctions should stay in place. In November 2010, Suu Kyi and her party boycotted Myanmar’s general elections, which Western powers declared a sham. But days after the vote, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest to great global fanfare. And upon taking power in March 2011, the country’s new president, former general Thein Sein, began introducing reforms at a pace that astonished even hardened skeptics. Media censorship was eased, a new labor law permitted unions and strikes, and restrictions on the internet were largely lifted. Myanmar also began releasing political prisoners, thanks to a major push by the human rights bureau at the State Department. Ultimately, around 1,500 political prisoners were released.
Things were changing so rapidly that the Obama administration could barely keep up. The U.S. approach to Myanmar was initially based on a concept called “action for action,” meaning that Myanmar would have to take a positive step for the U.S. to respond in kind. A “matrix” was even drawn up charting out matching actions, sources involved said. But the chart was quickly outdated because Myanmar officials moved faster than the Americans expected. “There was a real sense, too, that we had a window and that it wouldn’t stay open forever,” Willett said. “The Burmese, you’d meet with them, and it was just shocking how eager they were to do things differently. They’d talk to you, they’d discuss the way things could be changed. They just were like ‘OK, I’m going to tell you everything I know.’”
Clinton visited Myanmar in late 2011, the first U.S. secretary of state to do so in more than 50 years. She and Suu Kyi, two of the world’s most famous women, wore white as they met for dinner, then hugged and held hands the next day before reporters at the Nobel laureate’s lakeside home. When parliamentary by-elections were held in April 2012, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won most of the seats. In the days that followed, the U.S. took its diplomatic engagement with Myanmar to a new level. Clinton announced the administration would begin easing sanctions on Myanmar’s access to U.S. investment and financial services, and that it would reopen a USAID mission in the country. The administration also named Mitchell, who had been serving as a special envoy to Myanmar, as U.S. ambassador—the first person to hold the post since 1990, the year the junta refused to recognize the NLD’s historic election win. As the months wore on in 2012, the administration made another momentous decision: Obama would visit Myanmar that November.
The heady talk of progress glazed over serious policy struggles behind the scenes as the Obama administration debated just how far to go in peeling back economic sanctions. U.S. officials across the board remained suspicious of the Myanmar military’s true motives. But, according to people involved in the 2012 discussions, officials in the East Asia bureau at the State Department pushed for quicker, broader sanctions relief, while those in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, along with many outside rights activists and some U.S. lawmakers, urged a more cautious approach.
Those who wanted fast and wide sanctions relief argued that economic advances could boost democratic institutions, including Suu Kyi’s political party, by proving that political reforms could lead to prosperity among ordinary people. Plus, advocates of easing sanctions noted, the longstanding U.S. penalties hadn’t really hurt their intended target, the junta; Myanmar’s generals were well off in an otherwise poor country. Some military leaders had indicated to U.S. officials that they wanted to open up their country to the West not because they cared about the sanctions’ effect on their own fortunes but because Myanmar was economically trailing its neighbors. They also resented that China was throwing its weight around and saw the U.S. as a potential balancing force. “What they said was, ‘We want to take Burma from being impoverished up to the level of a Malaysia or even a Singapore. To do that we need American businesses, not Chinese,’” said Daniel Russel, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council in 2012 who later went on to lead the State Department’s East Asia bureau.
American businesses eager to explore a near-virgin market, despite Myanmar’s exceptional poverty and limited infrastructure, were also pressuring the administration to open up the country to U.S. investment. As sanctions were eventually eased, Coca-Cola jumped in with its sugary drinks, and General Electric started exploring the Myanmar health care market. (Still, U.S. business investment in Myanmar today lags well behind several other countries.)
Those wary of easing sanctions in 2012 had their own arguments. Many understood the desire to reward Myanmar for its reforms, but they felt the administration was offering too much economic relief too fast. They worried that the White House, which loved to use the phrase “Burma’s democratic transition,” was blind to just how far from a genuine democracy the country really was. The military did not answer to the civilian leadership, controlled vast portions of the government and gave no sign it planned to exit the political arena. This group acknowledged that sanctions offered little leverage in Myanmar, but, they argued, why give up even that limited leverage? “It was the diplomatic equivalent of burning money,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese junta ran the country for a half a century. They’d completely infected every sector. There needed to be a sword hanging over their head to keep them motivated.” Plus, easing the sanctions would send a symbolic signal that all was well in Myanmar, when it really wasn’t, the pro-sanctions advocates maintained.
Willett, who was on the National Security Council at the time, remembers one emotional roundtable with several NGOs in mid-2012 at which Obama administration officials discussed easing the sanctions. Human rights activists present pointed out that Myanmar’s military was still brutalizing ethnic minorities; at the time, the armed forces were pursuing an offensive against the Kachin after the collapse of a 17-year cease-fire. “People were crying. People were just so upset with us,” Willett said. In one private encounter with an activist not long afterward, things got personal. “I’ve never been called a baby-killer before,” Willett recalled. “I was really kind of shaken by the whole thing.”
The result of the wrangling was a set of compromises. For instance, the move to ease U.S. financial and investment restrictions on Myanmar did not permit new investment with the country’s armed forces. It also was coupled with an Obama executive order that gave the Treasury secretary authority to sanction people in Myanmar who undermined democratic reforms or abused human rights. State Department human rights officials also successfully fought to require U.S. companies newly investing more than $500,000 in Myanmar to issue reports detailing how they addressed labor, environmental and various social challenges there. Those same officials lost out, though, when they tried to bar U.S. oil and gas companies from taking advantage of the eased investment rules.
U.S. officials weren’t thinking much about the Rohingya in early 2012. They knew the group existed and was under pressure, but, sources indicated to me, they didn’t consider the possibility that the Rohingya were so despised that they would be excluded from the benefits of change. They assumed that Myanmar’s pledges to reconcile with armed ethnic groups would also cover the Rohingya.
That’s not because they were never warned otherwise. In March 2012, as the administration’s debate over sanctions heated up, U Kyaw Min, a prominent member of the Rohingya community who had been freed after years as a political prisoner, met with a State Department official. Kyaw Min viewed Myanmar’s desire to improve ties with the United States as a special opportunity to negotiate more security for his people—and to signal that the U.S. was watching out for them. He worried about what could happen without that protection.
When I recently saw him in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Kyaw Min told me that during that meeting he’d conveyed a straightforward request: Don’t relax sanctions on Myanmar unless the Rohingya are given back their citizenship. His request went nowhere.
During the second half of 2012, as life improved for many of the people of Myanmar, the Rohingya’s already tenuous standing took an ugly hit.
In June, a few months before Obama would make his first visit to the country, tensions between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists exploded after three Muslim men were blamed for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Villagers and vigilantes from both sides staged riots and fought each other, but as time went on, according to human rights groups, security forces stood aside or even joined in when the Buddhists attacked Muslims. In July, as Obama made the sanctions easing official, Thein Sein suggested that not only did Myanmar not want the Rohingya, but that they should be resettled in any third country “willing to take them.” A second wave of violence that year became more organized and more directed at the Rohingya. According to Human Rights Watch, on October 23, thousands of Rakhine Buddhist men “armed with machetes, swords, homemade guns, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons descended upon and attacked Muslim villages in nine townships throughout the state. State security forces either failed to intervene or participated directly in the violence.”
In other countries emerging from dictatorship, lifting the government’s heavy hand has led to dramatic explosions of ethnic violence. In Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, it was Sunni versus Shia Muslims, with minority Christians a target, too. In Indonesia, as pressure grew on the dictator Suharto to step down in 1998, ethnic Chinese minorities became the target of riots. “When transitioning to democracy, political actors want to be popular, so they’ll inflame certain passions,” noted Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on political transitions.
In Myanmar, one of the loudest anti-Rohingya voices was that of Ashin Wirathu, a monk dubbed by critics the “Buddhist bin Laden.” Wirathu took advantage of the increased freedom of speech and access to social media, delivering anti-Muslim sermons at rallies and warning that the Rohingya were trying to Islamify Myanmar. “We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town,” Wirathu was quoted as telling the Guardian, claiming: “In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.”
In Washington, U.S. officials watched the 2012 violence with varying degrees of alarm. One U.S. official recalled arguments over whether to call the fighting “communal”—blaming all sides and thus striking a more neutral tone—or, as the violence increasingly appeared to be one-sided, “anti-Muslim.” There was also uncertainty about how to deal with the rise of voices like Wirathu’s. “We had a lot of conversations about how to counter that kind of speech and putting pressure on the government to crack down on the incitement,” Willett said. “But when you are at the same time advocating free speech and expansion of media, it’s kind of a difficult line to walk, you know?”
Myanmar’s leaders responded to the 2012 violence in Rakhine state by creating a series of camps for displaced persons. To this day, some 120,000 Rohingya are confined to those facilities, which U.N. officials describe as so squalid that parts of them are “literally cesspools.”
“The conditions in the Rohingya camps were awful. People were living in mud. You saw people with diseases who clearly needed medical attention,” said Dan Baer, a former deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s human rights bureau who visited Rakhine state in September 2012 to better understand the violence. Baer was struck in particular by the dehumanizing way the Rakhine Buddhists discussed the Rohingya, and how many said they would never again live alongside people who were once their neighbors. He worried that if the viral hatred wasn’t addressed, more violence lay ahead: “What we saw was a powder keg ready to go off.”
As they urged their counterparts in Myanmar to stop the mistreatment, the Americans began to grasp another reality: The Rohingya simply had no popular support in the country—in fact, persecuting them was popular. Most shocking was the attitude of some of the pro-democracy activists the U.S. had backed for so many years. Suu Kyi, for example, viewed the Rohingya as political poison, and she wouldn’t utter their name—at least not in public—for fear of damaging her base of support. Others in her sphere—many of whom, like Suu Kyi herself, hail from Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority—could be outright racist when discussing the Rohingya.
“It’s hard to explain this,” a former State Department official said, “but if you go inside Burma and ask almost anyone you meet about the … Rohingya, and they feel they’re not being recorded or whatever, they will say almost all the same thing: that they’re terrorists, that they’re dirty, that they don’t belong to our country. It is shocking.”
But the spasms of violence in 2012 did not lead Obama to scrap his November visit; there were just too many positive changes in Myanmar, which had become Exhibit A in the administration’s case for engaging adversaries. Some in the administration took to calling Myanmar “Oburma,” a recognition of how important it was to the president. Even the ethnic strife seemed manageable, with Myanmar officials taking just enough steps to ease U.S. concerns. For instance, at the urging of Samantha Power, a National Security Council official and genocide scholar who later became Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Thein Sein agreed to what became known as the “11 commitments,” a set of benchmarks related to Rakhine state and other human rights and democracy-related challenges in Myanmar.
As the commitments were unveiled during Obama’s much ballyhooed six-hour visit in November 2012, Thein Sein’s gesture raised hopes that the rapprochement was worth pursuing. Fresh off his reelection, Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, praised its democratic reforms and called for more. “Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation,” he said in remarks at the University of Yangon. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished.”
To his credit, Obama also named the group that must not be named. “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people,” he said. “And the Rohingya hold themselves—hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”
Obama may have tried to raise sympathy for the Rohingya, but their daily life grew steadily worse during his second term as president.
Security forces would often pick up Rohingya men on the flimsiest of pretexts, torturing them and demanding bribes for their release, several people in the Bangladesh camps said. Men could be whisked away for having a cellphone without permission, not informing authorities they’d purchased a goat or simply being somewhere without prior approval. The more educated men, or economically successful ones, seemed to be in extra danger of such state-sponsored abductions. To avoid the hassle of an encounter with the security forces, many Rohingya tried to move around at night. They also tried to avoid their Buddhist neighbors, who frequently aided the security forces in the oppression.
The security forces often accused Rohingya men of being “terrorist” members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the insurgent group behind the August 2017 attacks that triggered the military retaliation. Mohammad Idrees, 30, said he was detained twice and told to confess to nonexistent ARSA ties. “They tied me up and beat the soles of my feet. They threw hot water on me,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “It didn’t matter what I answered. They beat me either way.”
Armed Rohingya groups have come and gone over the years, though not with the longevity and scale of some of Myanmar’s other armed ethnic groups. ARSA seems to be the latest iteration—a rebel band that emerged in recent years as discrimination against the Rohingya intensified. The group remains weak, with limited access to weapons—“a dozen guys with swords” is how one U.S. official put it. Even so, Myanmar’s leaders, both civilian and military, say they are alarmed by ARSA’s emergence. The Rohingya I met said soldiers would routinely raid their homes, searching for weapons and confiscating even small kitchen knives. Many Rohingya are angry with ARSA for sparking the latest military crackdown. But some predict that, if their conditions worsen, more will join the group. “It’s not right to use violence, but we have no choice. We are helpless,” said Abdul Mannan, an imam at a mosque in one camp.
In 2014, the Myanmar government refused to let people register as “Rohingya” in the country’s first nationwide census in three decades. In 2015, an international crisis emerged as thousands of Rohingya trying to flee the oppression were stranded at sea when nearby nations refused to accept them. That same year, Myanmar passed a series of so-called race and religion protection laws that targeted certain Muslim religious and cultural practices, including polygamy. To top it off, the government blocked the Rohingya from voting in the 2015 elections, even though they’d been allowed to cast ballots five years earlier. The decision, activists said, effectively stripped Myanmar’s Rohingya of their last political right.
During Obama’s second term, as Myanmar was supposedly transitioning to democracy under the watchful eye of the United States, a growing number of researchers started using the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” to describe the Rohingya’s plight—both because of the physical violence they suffered as well as the legal and political repression they faced. By 2015, the British-based International State Crime Initiative declared that the Rohingya were facing the “final stages” of genocide. The Obama administration and other Western powers avoided using similar labels; declaring a genocide in theory comes with legal obligations to intervene. Meanwhile, the U.S. pressed ahead with the rapprochement.
It was also during Obama’s second term that Ben Rhodes took a greater role in the Myanmar portfolio. Rhodes, whose title of deputy national security adviser for strategic communications belied his vast influence with the president, was the administration’s fiercest advocate of engagement with rogue regimes—not just with Myanmar but also with Cuba and Iran. He made détente with Myanmar a personal mission, overseeing the administration’s messaging and negotiating policy with other officials involved. By 2016, Rhodes was arguing that Obama should remove the remaining economic sanctions on the country. “The people sanctioned in Burma were the richest people in Burma,” Rhodes said. “The sanctions, in our assessment, were punishing ordinary Burmese.”
So in that final year of Obama’s presidency, administration officials and rights activists found themselves in a more intense replay of the 2012 sanctions debate—pitting Rhodes and the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs against State Department human rights officials and outside rights campaigners. This time, the stakes were higher: Obama was considering lifting economic sanctions on military-linked entities and terminating the nearly two-decade-old U.S. declaration of a “national emergency” with respect to Myanmar. That “national emergency” declaration was the legal basis on which many of the sanctions were crafted and implemented. By the time of the Four Seasons party, after Obama had indicated he would take both those steps, feelings on both sides were more than a little sore. (Thanks in part to Congress, some notable restrictions on the U.S. relationship with Myanmar remained in place, including an arms embargo and limits on military-to-military ties.)
On October 9, 2016—just two days after Obama revoked the “national emergency” order—Rohingya insurgents attacked several Myanmar border posts, killing at least nine guards. As Obama went ahead with unraveling sanctions, Myanmar’s security forces went after the Rohingya. After an initial crackdown that displaced at least 87,000 people, the armed forces started showing up in villages to raid homes practically every day, Rohingya in the Bangladesh camps said. During their patrols, the security forces would sometimes grab “the more beautiful girls,” some of the women said, and take them to a nearby school for an hour or two to rape them. Other times, they’d gather many of the village women in one place, separate the prettier ones, and strip them of their scarves so that they could better see their figures. One woman I met grabbed her own breasts and pulled up her shirt to describe the way the Myanmar security forces would grope them.
There was no fighting back.
“We didn’t say a word,” said Arifa Begum, 46. “They’d slit our throats.”
More than a year later, as a new wave of violence has sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya pouring into Bangladesh, former Obama administration officials have been emailing one another and agonizing over what more—if anything—they could have done to prevent the current crisis. Did they pay enough attention to this one group? Were they blinded by the positive changes in Myanmar and naive about the impact on the Rohingya? Was it a mistake to lift the sanctions?
Critics of U.S. policy, many of them human rights activists and some former administration officials, blamed Rhodes, and by extension Obama, for not pushing hard enough to protect the Rohingya. Rhodes was so invested in his narrative about engaging adversaries, these critics charged, that he failed to fully appreciate the Rohingya’s plight. Some former and current U.S. officials I spoke to said they found it difficult to point out problems with the “Oburma” legacy, especially in Obama’s second term. “It was really hard to issue statements that suggested not all was well with the U.S. relationship with Myanmar, even when it came to the Rohingya,” one U.S. official involved in the process said. “Everything had to sound positive.”
Other U.S. officials and outside analysts insisted the administration was right not to hinge its Myanmar policy on the fate of one ethnic group. After all, Myanmar had, and has, lots of problems. This was a country that was home to drug trafficking, child soldiers, forced labor and a decades-long civil war with various armed ethnic groups. With everything else happening in the relationship—above all, the emerging outlines of a democracy—protecting the Rohingya couldn’t necessarily be the sole or even top priority.
In my talk with Rhodes, he took exception to any assertion that protecting a vulnerable population wasn’t at the top of his list. “That’s offensive to me,” Rhodes said. He described the Rohingya as an important topic in conversations that he, Obama and other administration officials held with Myanmar’s leaders. “I raised the Rohingya issue more with the Burmese government than any other,” he said. “We were making it a front-and-center part of this relationship, and working really hard to prevent this from happening. It wasn’t about putting a trophy on the wall. It was about making life better for the people of Myanmar.”
Rhodes argued that the Rohingya problem was simply so sensitive, and hatred of the group so powerful, that threatening to keep or add sanctions based on how the minority was treated would not have moved Myanmar’s generals. When U.S. officials raised the topic with their Myanmar counterparts, Rhodes and others said, they would often be met with dead-end answers along the lines of, “It’s complicated.” Continued U.S. engagement through Obama’s second term, on the other hand, kept things from getting even worse for the Rohingya, Rhodes argued, and it’s the only real solution moving forward. Under Obama, “the pressure basically averted further deterioration without solving the problem,” he said. “Sometimes that’s all you can accomplish. Sometimes it takes a significant amount of pressure and engagement just to preserve a bad status quo.”
Mitchell said he, too, made the Rohingya a special priority during his time as U.S. ambassador. He gathered diplomats from other countries to jointly speak out against violence in Rakhine. He traveled to Rakhine state multiple times, met with Rohingya representatives and urged Myanmar’s leaders to accept the Muslim minority into the fabric of the country. “I was having constant conversations about that issue with the government, saying ‘You need to have a road map, get in front of this, you have to deal with these questions of citizenship,’” Mitchell recalled. “To be honest, we would see some of the right things being said, the right things being done, but they never quite did enough over the years. … They would say ‘Give us time and space.’”
Sometimes, Mitchell said, Myanmar officials would indicate they wanted to do something to help the Rohingya, such as jump-start a citizenship restoration process. But such initiatives would get derailed by disputes over whether to use the word “Rohingya.” “At a certain point, I just felt like maybe they were playing for time, they were playing me,” Mitchell said. But he agreed with Rhodes that the hatred of the Rohingya is so strong in Myanmar that even if the U.S. had left economic sanctions in place purely because of that group’s issues, nothing would have changed. “They don’t care about that,” Mitchell said. “They feel this is their sovereignty, that these people are not Burmese and are out to get them.”
Besides, even some of the most ardent human rights observers in the administration failed to foresee the worst. Malinowski, who joined the State Department from Human Rights Watch in Obama’s second term, noted that his arguments against lifting the sanctions in 2016 were more about keeping pressure on the military to reduce its role in governance: “I was not thinking, ‘Oh my God, they are going to ethnically cleanse all of the Rohingya from the country.’”
I asked several current and former U.S. officials whether the Obama administration would have stopped the rapprochement with Myanmar had Suu Kyi been taken back into custody or the NLD been outlawed. They all said, basically, yes. “We would not have done the engagement,” Rhodes said.
But now that one of the world’s most recognizable icons of democracy is running Myanmar’s civilian government, she has said little about the violence in Rakhine. She won’t say the word “Rohingya,” and she’s largely avoided criticizing the military for its brutal campaign. Her stance has wrecked her image abroad. Other Nobel laureates have excoriated her, and there are calls that she be stripped of her Peace Prize.
Current and former U.S. officials who know the 72-year-old Suu Kyi hesitate to describe her as a racist. But there is a growing belief among them that Suu Kyi is at her core a Bamar nationalist with a significant appreciation for the armed forces—after all, her father was a military man. “She may be talking about democracy, but she’s authoritarian in her manner,” said the former State Department official. (Suu Kyi didn’t respond to an interview request.)
Suu Kyi’s defenders in Washington and Myanmar note she has made some effort on behalf of the Rohingya—including supporting the creation of a commission led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on how to help the people of Rakhine state. But they also argue that, even if she wanted to do more, she has no control over the military—and to loudly defend a hated group might constitute political suicide. The military’s domestic popularity has risen because of its campaign against the Rohingya, leading to speculation that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, will ride that support to the presidency in the next election.
Nationalist or no, Suu Kyi and her party represent the democratic aspirations of tens of millions of people. Would it be worth giving that up to protect one besieged minority? This dilemma is one reason Suu Kyi’s supporters in Myanmar are exceedingly cautious about how they discuss the Rohingya. Some question the media accounts and suggest the refugees are making up stories about the raping, maiming and murdering. When I spoke to Aung Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States, he dismissed claims of ethnic cleansing and said the international community had yet to provide credible evidence. Ko Jimmy, a democracy activist and former political prisoner I met in Yangon, worried that international pressure on Suu Kyi’s government over the troubles in Rakhine could scuttle the country’s political transition. “Still, we are struggling for democratization in our country,” he said. “Still, we are struggling against the military group.”
That’s probably why Suu Kyi retains notable support in Washington. Even former and current U.S. officials deeply disappointed in her attitude toward the Rohingya see no alternative but to keep working with her and her party to stay on the path of democratization. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime advocate for democracy in Myanmar and fan of Suu Kyi, has expressed his continued support in recent months despite the bloodshed in Rakhine state. “Publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, the best hope for democratic reform in Burma, is simply not constructive,” the Republican senator said in September.
In the dusty camps in Bangladesh, support for Suu Kyi is nearly nonexistent. Rohingya refugees said they’d hoped that once she and her party won the elections in 2015, their lives would improve, that she would speak out on their behalf. They were disappointed. “Aung San Suu Kyi never did anything good for us,” said Gulfaraz, the 85-year-old.
When Kyaw Min warned the U.S. six years ago not to lift sanctions unless his people’s citizenship was restored, he feared the disaster playing out today. Sitting with him in Yangon, I pointed out that the majority of people in Myanmar are living a freer life. Does it make sense, I asked, to forgo the rights of one small group, the 1.1 million Rohingya, to bring the benefits of democracy and economic investment to some 55 million other people?
Without hesitation, Kyaw Min said no. “Democracy,” he said, “does not mean that minorities can be exploited for the majority’s satisfaction.”
For Rhodes, it’s hard enough hearing about the atrocities befalling the Rohingya. Just as frustrating is what he sees as the Trump administration’s failure to respond in a meaningful way. “I understand the impulse to make this about the Obama administration,” Rhodes chided me. “But we’re not in power now.”
There’s no question the worst wave of violence took place well into Trump’s tenure. His administration was slow to react, and it has sent mixed messages as the months have worn on. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was one of the first U.S. officials to warn the Myanmar military against attacking civilians. But in mid-October, after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already streamed into Bangladesh, her office released a statement in which she urged “all sides” to end the violence—as if the villagers fleeing their homes were as culpable as the security forces attacking them. In early November, NBC News reported that Tillerson had understood the gravity of the situation only after reading news reports and realizing the violence was much more serious than what his own East Asia bureau had told him.
Tillerson visited Myanmar in mid-November, urging the government there to allow a credible investigation into the alleged atrocities. A week later, he formally declared the violence against the Rohingya to be “ethnic cleansing,” and since then, the State Department announced it was imposing sanctions on a top Myanmar general accused of overseeing many of the abuses. Some members of Congress also have prepared legislation to impose sanctions on Myanmar military officials—but it’s not clear how far those proposals will get given resistance from McConnell.
As for Trump, he has yet to say much about the Rohingya tragedy publicly, although the White House said he raises it with counterparts in private settings. In remarks to a gathering of Asian leaders in November, Trump said the U.S. “supports efforts to end the violence” and to “ensure accountability for atrocities committed.” Some Trump critics have even wondered whether Myanmar’s military leaders read Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims and refugees as a sign that he would not care if they cracked down on the Rohingya. Regardless of the reason, few in the region are counting on Washington for leadership. China, which has economic interests in Rakhine state, has already tried to fill the vacuum, laying out a broad three-stage strategy to resolve the crisis: a cease-fire; a workable agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh on how to deal with the refugees; and a long-term plan to alleviate poverty in Rakhine state.
For the Rohingya, a solution feels out of reach. Many have tried to stick it out in northern Rakhine state. But it’s hard to get food or engage in any sort of livelihood in the area, so Rohingya are still trickling into Bangladesh. Abul Kalam, a 60-year-old farmhand and fisherman who reached Bangladesh on Christmas Eve, told me that the killing wasn’t over. It’s just quieter. “The military has stopped killing by gun,” he said, shaking his head. “Now they use thick sticks and beat people to death. It’s brutal.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar have struck a deal on repatriating the Rohingya, but its implementation has been delayed, and almost no one I talked to takes it seriously. One Bangladeshi official said that, realistically, most of the Rohingya refugees will be staying in camps in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future. It’s an extraordinarily heavy lift for Bangladesh, an impoverished, densely populated country prone to natural disasters.
Diphtheria and measles have spread in the camps, and some fear more diseases lurk in waiting. The conditions are likely to get worse during monsoon season. Yet I couldn’t find a single Rohingya who wanted to return to Myanmar anytime soon. The refugees insisted they wouldn’t go back until they are given citizenship and their rights are guaranteed.
I asked whether there was anything the United States could do, but few Rohingya knew much about America. Some said that the U.S. was “strong” and they hoped that strength would translate to benevolence. Few had heard of Trump. Obama was a more familiar name—some Rohingya called him the American “raja,” or king. But with the challenges the Rohingya face each day, the international debate over their fate seemed worlds away.
“I don’t care about politics overseas,” one Rohingya woman said. “I’m just trying to make sure my family and I survive.”
Nahal Toosi is a foreign affairs correspondent at Politico. This story was reported with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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