Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned what he called "widespread atrocities" against Myanmar's Rohingya minority on Wednesday morning, but stopped short of calling for new sanctions against the government that is committing them. It's the latest sign of the Trump administration's troubling hesitance to press human rights concerns during a pair of high-profile trips through Asia.
At least Tillerson, unlike the White House, acknowledged there is a problem to address. In a joint press conference with Myanmar’s civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, he noted that the “humanitarian scandal of this crisis is staggering” and called for a credible independent investigation into the military’s actions in the region. While he stopped short of using the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe the atrocities — a move many human rights advocates had hoped he’d make — he did say the worst of the violence against the Rohingya, more than 600,000 of whom have fled for Bangladesh, “has a number of characteristics of certainly crimes against humanity.”
That’s hard to dispute. Roughly 60 percent of the Rohingya who have fled for relative safety since the end of August are children. The refugees say Myanmar’s military has carried out a systematic campaign of mass shootings. Stories have emerged of whole villages burned to the ground, babies murdered, and gang rapes. The widespread violence led the world to call upon Suu Kyi to condemn her military; she has refused, though language is one of her only real tools. She has little real control over her generals.
In the joint press conference with Tillerson Wednesday, Suu Kyi was asked about her role in curbing the military and why she has remained silent on the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. “I don’t know why people say that I’ve been silent. I haven’t been silent,” she replied. “I think what people mean is that what I say is not interesting enough.”
But the situation in Myanmar isn’t about being interesting. It’s about being accountable. On Monday, the Myanmar military released a report exonerating itself of all abuses, including rape and extrajudicial killings, despite widespread reports to the contrary. Following that report, which was posted to Facebook, US State Department spokesperson Katina Adams said the United States remains “gravely concerned by continuing reports of violence and human rights abuses committed by Burmese security forces and vigilantes. Those responsible for abuses must be held accountable.”
“Much more disturbingly,” they noted, “the treatment of the Rohingya bears many hallmarks of historical campaigns of genocide.”
The administration has failed to materially change its position on the crisis
Tillerson’s cautious language in Myanmar was keeping with the pattern set by President Trump himself, whose 12-day trip to Asia had him breaking bread with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
But unlike President Obama, who made a point of using his trips to regions with dodgy rights records to assert America’s moral soft power in the world, Trump pointedly missed opportunity after opportunity to push leaders to better respect human rights in their countries and cut back on abuses. He apparently failed to press Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte on the extrajudicial killings in his brutal war on drugs that has left more than 7,000 people dead. He didn't publicly bring up political prisoners in Vietnam or China. And he neglected to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Tillerson made clear that the administration’s substantive approach to the country was similarly unlikely to change soon. “I think broad-based economic sanctions against the entire country is not something that I would think would be advisable at this time,” he said on Wednesday, though that is exactly what the human rights community has hoped he might do. His reason, he said, was, “We’re here to support Myanmar. We want Myanmar to succeed. We want its democracy to succeed.”
Tillerson’s biggest promise on Wednesday was additional humanitarian aid for the region, and a call for a real analysis of the situation.
“Certainly it would have been preferable if [Tillerson] came out stronger on what happened in northern Rakhine and the need for a UN-led investigation, not for another Burmese government investigation,” Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me by email. “[He’s taken] an important step in the right direction. The question of course then becomes what next?”
And in a press release, Joanne Lin of Amnesty International acknowledged Tillerson’s call for aid and investigation, but noted, “[T]he pressure cannot end there. Legislation being considered by Congress would push U.S. leaders to hold ... [Myanmar’s] military leaders accountable, and must be passed and acted upon.”
More talk, in other words, will not end the crisis.