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.’”