WASHINGTON ― Top Trump administration officials and a bipartisan group of powerful lawmakers have formed a tacit alliance that could be the best hope for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar last year.
The State Department and the White House have taken striking steps to push Myanmar to punish those responsible for the crackdown. And on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans have rallied behind measures to increase pressure on Myanmar’s leaders.
President Donald Trump has been largely silent on the Rohingya so far. But the unlikely collaboration on one of the world’s largest human rights crises could result in one of the few major international accomplishments of his time in office thus far — if Trump decides to personally join the effort, that is, and if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stops blocking votes on the issue.
“We really think this could be a success story for the administration,” said Francisco Bencosme, an advocacy official at the nonprofit group Amnesty International. “There’s been high-level engagement. But at the same time, the buck stops with the president. We haven’t seen President Trump speak out for the Rohingya. Until there’s presidential leadership, we still think there’s room for more.”
Myanmar’s military and allied Buddhist militias killed and raped thousands of Rohingya last year after Rohingya militants attacked security outposts in August. Some 700,000 members of the historically demonized ethnic and religious minority group fled from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state to neighboring Bangladesh because of the violence.
Trump aides have been working to help the Rohingya refugees leave the cramped camps, rebuild their burned-down villages and gain the full citizenship rights they have been denied for decades. In October, the administration cut off U.S. assistance for Myanmar military officials involved in operations in Rakhine, and the following month it declared the assault “ethnic cleansing.” Trump placed sanctions on a prominent Myanmar general involved in the offensive in December. And last month, Reuters revealed that a State Department team has been gathering Rohingya allegations of abuse that could be used for further sanctions and international prosecution of Myanmar officials.
“There’s a high level of interest in the administration over this,” Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, told The Wall Street Journal after visiting the camps in April.
On Monday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chastised Myanmar ally China for watering down a U.N. Security Council statement on the issue. At a refugee camp the next day, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Mark Green said the State Department will provide new policy recommendations to the president later this summer. He also announced $44 million more in U.S. humanitarian aid to feed and house the Rohingya, bringing the total to nearly $300 million.
The steps have won the Trump team uncommon praise from Congress, where parallel efforts are in the works. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a leader on the issue who led lawmakers on a trip to the region last year, said he was encouraged by both the State Department’s use of the “ethnic cleansing” label and the tough language from Haley.
“This is a massive case of horrific ethnic cleansing — and, some would say, a genocide,” Merkley told HuffPost. “It was a horrific assault on these defenseless villages and America should be in the forefront of the world’s action.”
Merkley has sponsored a Senate resolution urging the “safe, dignified, voluntary and sustainable” return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Co-sponsored by six GOP senators, it’s one of two bills on the situation that passed out of the Senate foreign relations committee this spring. The other, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and supported by 19 other senators, makes similar demands and outlines procedures for pressuring Myanmar by placing sanctions on military officials and reducing U.S. purchases of the jade and rubies that are among its top exports. Both proposals have the support of the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), who went on the trip with Merkley, and are linked to parallel legislation in the House.
Support from Trump for those bills could help them overcome opposition from McConnell.
The Senate majority leader is a longtime supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, the activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was held under house arrest by Myanmar’s military until 2010. McConnell pushed hard for her release, and for the junta to begin loosening its grip on power. Now, Suu Kyi is the most powerful civilian in the country’s government ― but she’s facing major international criticism for her failure to acknowledge the Rohingyas’ suffering or publicly challenge Myanmar’s generals.
McConnell has said the U.S. should acknowledge the crisis but be wary of upending the power balance in the country. “Publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi — the best hope for democratic reform in Burma — is not constructive,” McConnell said in September, referring to Myanmar by its former name as U.S. officials often do.
That argument has some powerful supporters within the State Department, which led an Obama-era policy of limited engagement that involved easing U.S. sanctions on the country as its military rulers made concessions like releasing Suu Kyi. The agency’s top Asia official, acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, is reluctant to publicly condemn Myanmar or China for fear of reducing U.S. influence over them or weakening Suu Kyi’s position, Trump aides and congressional staffers say.
Those working for the Rohingya see that thinking as outdated, given Suu Kyi’s track record in recent years.
“I’m a big supporter of Suu Kyi... all the Rohingya supported her,” said Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, an American Muslim leader involved in lobbying around the issue. But “she has enough authority and she doesn’t do anything with it. We hope that McConnell will have a second look.”
A strong statement from the White House might acknowledge that reality and trigger faster, stronger American action. Trump has not publicly spoken about the crisis despite private commitments during his first official trip to Asia last year.
Merkley believes the lack of a presidential statement creates a global perception of indifference. “If the president doesn’t know about it or, worse yet, knows about it and doesn’t care about it, either one is an enormous failing,” he said.
Spokespeople for McConnell and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The situation may soon get worse because of monsoon season, which often brings cyclones and floods. Humanitarian groups are worried about its impact on the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and the possibility that a fresh catastrophe could exacerbate budding Bengali resentment toward the refugees.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s government is dampening hopes of a peaceful return by aggressively transforming the Rohingyas’ homeland and limiting supplies of food and medicine to those Rohingya who still live in the country. It has prevented United Nations officials, rights groups and the media from freely exploring the area ― though some have snuck in to document ongoing government crackdowns, and Rohingya have been sharing accounts of arson and worsening poverty through social media.
Top congressional staff working on the issue discovered the lengths Myanmar’s leaders would go to downplay abuses during a visit this spring, an aide told HuffPost: While they flew over Rakhine state, the windows on the government plane carrying them were blacked out so they could not see burned-out Rohingya villages.
That only strengthened the feeling that something needs to change fast, the aide said.
Officials and activists hope Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others close to Trump can get the issue on the president’s radar soon, whether by using upcoming State Department reports ― including one on whether the U.S. believes Myanmar’s actions constitute crimes against humanity ― or just appealing to his political instincts.
Taking action on Myanmar could allow Trump to depict himself as fixing one of former President Barack Obama’s mistakes. There’s increasing public skepticism of Obama’s 2012 decision to ease sanctions on Myanmar and stay relatively quiet about the persecution of the Rohingya in hopes of facilitating a transition to democracy.
The situation offers Trump a rare chance to win international acclaim by charting a different course on foreign policy from Obama.
It’s not yet clear whether the president sees the opportunity.