The United States is set to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar after a meeting Wednesday between President Barack Obama and the country’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The proposed move on sanctions comes in addition to the reinstatement of trade benefits — all signs of a thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations. But the news is cold comfort to members of the minority Rohingya ethnic group, based in Rakhine State, who have lived for years under Myanmar’s oppressive leadership and are unlikely to be helped by a shift in American attitudes.
A joint statement released by both countries following Obama’s meeting with Suu Kyi hinted at a mutual acknowledgement of the plight of the Rohingya, but stopped short of directly promising a commitment to tackling the problem:
The President told the State Counsellor that the primary focus of U.S. policy toward Myanmar was to help Myanmar succeed. He reiterated that the United States would continue its strong support, both diplomatically and through assistance programs, for the priorities expressed by the State Counsellor. He welcomed the Myanmar government’s initiatives to address the longstanding concerns of all communities in Rakhine State, including the establishment of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by Mr. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations. The President expressed his hope that all parties to civil conflict in Myanmar would seize the opportunity offered by the 21st Century Panglong process to seek peace and build the foundations for a democratic, federal Union through dialogue.
This is not unusual. The United States has been tepid in its response to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. Myanmar, also known as Burma, recognizes 135 ethnic groups within its borders, but, as the New York Times notes, the country pointedly ignores its 136th: the Rohingya. Unlike much of Myanmar, which is majority Buddhist, the Rohingya are Muslim, a distinction that has fueled their persecution and marginalization.
Myanmar’s Rohingya population claim they are indigenous to Rakhine State, which lies on the country’s western coast, but the historical role the Rohingya are accused of playing in Myanmar has contributed to much of their oppression.
For more than a century, Myanmar was occupied by the British, who encouraged laborers from neighboring Bengal and elsewhere in South Asia to migrate and farm the area, only to later recruit them in fighting efforts against the Burmese. Many Burmese citizens argue that the contemporary Rohingya are descendants of these migrants, a stance that was codified by a 1982 nationality law stripping them of citizenship. In the time since, life for the Rohingya has been a nightmare.
Under the military junta that governed the country until 2011, the Rohingya were relentlessly persecuted and ostracized. Denied basic civil rights — including marriage, education, and the freedom to worship — thousands have fled Rakhine State, many attempting to reach Myanmar’s neighboring countries.
But the end of military rule left some optimistic. General elections were held in 2015, handing Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) a landslide victory. Though constitutionally barred from serving as president, Suu Kyi now effectively serves as the country’s leader. However, in the time since the election it has become clear that Suu Kyi plans to do little to help the Rohingya — an attitude that should deeply concern countries rekindling their ties with Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who lived under house arrest for over a decade during Myanmar’s military rule, has long been hailed as an iconic figure across the globe for her tireless devotion to her country. But when it comes to the Rohingya, she has fallen short. Upon returning to power Suu Kyi instructed the new U.S. ambassador not to use the term “Rohingya.” In the past, she has also said she “didn’t know” if the Rohingya could be considered citizens. Her feelings even seem to go beyond the Rohingya specifically, addressing Muslims more generally. Following a tense interview with Mishal Husain of the BBC in March, during which she was questioned about Islamophobia in Myanmar, Suu Kyi reportedly expressed anger at being interviewed by a Muslim.
These incidents have done little to inspire confidence in her ability to tackle anti-Rohingya violence in the country.
In response to international criticism, Myanmar’s government formed the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The commission will inspect the treatment of the Rohingya, and offer suggestions to the government that will aim to tackle the discrimination and marginalization they face.
But naysayers argue that the government is likely to ignore any suggestions made by the commission due in no small part to the attitudes of Rakhine State’s residents. The area’s non-Muslim population has already voiced opposition to the commission’s existence, an attitude that echoes the views of the country at large. In the meantime, the Rohingya are suffering in limbo. And with the United States softening its tone, it appears Myanmar’s government will face few incentives to address the plight of the Rohingya swiftly — if at all.