Idealism and inertia: US policy in the age of Rakhine

Multiple power centres in United States politics complicates foreign policy, particularly when a country is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.


“I’M INCREDIBLY thankful that Donald Trump doesn’t think a lot about Southeast Asia,” laughs Mr Brian Harding, deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Then his face turns slightly more serious. “I mean, imagine if he were to start tweeting about the Thai election, or Philippines policy in the South China Sea.”

Welcome to US foreign policy in the Donald Trump era. While Trump is an outsized presence on the global stage, he is close to a non-presence when it comes to Southeast Asia country policy.

But that doesn’t mean there is no policy; in many cases, there has simply been a continuation of Obama era policies. There are also plenty of other individuals and institutions to fill the ideological void left by Trump, including Congress, the State Department, the media, non-government organisations, lobby groups and think tanks.

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When there’s general consensus on how a particular country or issue should be addressed, or it’s considered of low importance, it can be easy to miss the push and pull of these different actors at work. There might be few lawmakers discussing Myanmar policy on Capitol Hill or little pressure from NGOs or the media to adopt a particular course of action.

But the escalation of the Rakhine crisis since August 2017 and questions over how to respond have made Myanmar an unusually divisive and complex issue for the US system to respond to – particularly without a president who is setting the agenda and ensuring policy cohesion.

For nearly everyone besides Trump, Myanmar is seemingly viewed solely in relation to events in Rakhine State. But how is US policy on Myanmar being made? Who is pushing which course of action?

China, religious freedom and human rights

While Trump might struggle to find Myanmar on a map, there are plenty of people around him taking an interest in the country. They represent a curious mix of hard-nosed pragmatism and lofty idealism.

When Vice President Mr Mike Pence publicly decried the “violence and persecution” directed at the Rohingya as he stood beside State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at a recent bilateral meeting in Singapore, he didn’t mention religious freedom specifically.

But Pence is one of several evangelical Christians in the White House, including Secretary of State Mr Mike Pompeo, for whom religious freedom is a top policy priority and is a significant factor in how they respond to Rakhine State. Their views are deeply rooted in the tradition of the First Amendment, which makes no mention of specific religions, and therefore they see it as their job to advocate for freedom of religion for Christians and non-Christians alike; the fact that the Rohingya are Muslim doesn’t matter.

“The administration is using [religious freedom] as the face of its human rights policy,” says Mr Guy Taylor, a journalist at the Washington Times who oversees the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage.

Together with Trump appointee Mr Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Pence and Pompeo convened a “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” in Washington in July, bringing together representatives from more than 80 countries “that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom”. Myanmar was not invited, but was the subject of a statement that focused mostly on “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine State.

Religious freedom is not the only lens through which members of the White House view Myanmar, though. On the National Security Council, a body that advises the president on national security and foreign policy, it’s all China, China, China. In the view of the council’s members, Myanmar is a struggling democracy that needs to be treated with care lest it gets pushed any further into China’s orbit, several sources told Frontier.

This thinking was reflected when Mr Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs at the NSC, visited Myanmar in June and told journalists that the US was committed to supporting Myanmar and encouraged American firms to continue investing in the country.

“Over the long term, we believe that increasing investment here, increasing confidence in Myanmar will lead to [economic growth], and ultimately that will have the best effect on mitigating the discrimination, mitigating the suffering that’s affecting many different groups in Myanmar,” he said.

Another issue that makes the NSC sympathetic to the Myanmar government is the International Criminal Court.

On September 6, the court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh, despite Myanmar not being a signatory to the Rome Statute that underpins the ICC.

The US is also not a signatory, but an ICC prosecutor has requested an investigation into allegations of torture by the US military in Afghanistan.

The head of the NSC, National Security Adviser Mr John Bolton, has made no secret of his dislike for the ICC. In a much-reported speech on September 10 – just four days after the court’s decision on Myanmar – he described the court as a threat to US sovereignty and national security. Substitute “US” for “Myanmar” and his remarks could conceivably have come from Nay Pyi Taw.

TheWashington Post reported on November 15 that Bolton’s views on the ICC might have been one reason why a State Department investigation into alleged atrocities in Rakhine State did not make a determination that “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” had occurred.

Finally, there’s a cohort pushing a strong human rights agenda spearheaded by outgoing ambassador to the United Nations Ms Nikki Haley, who is to leave her position at the end of the year. Another prominent figure is Ms Kelley Currie, the US representative to the UN’s Economic and Social Council. A Myanmar and Asia specialist, Currie was previously affiliated with the Project 2049 Institute, where she founded the Burma Transition Initiative.

The competing agendas and the lack of overall direction on Myanmar reflect a broader “chaos of policy formulation” within the White House, says Mr Hunter Marston, a Myanmar analyst based in Washington. “It’s at odds with the sort of foreign policy I see from Congress, the Department of Defense, State Department, think tanks, where there’s more consistency on the sort of big picture strategy. But that’s not coming from the White House.”

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and United States Vice President Mr Mike Pence hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of an ASEAN Summit in Singapore on November 14. (AFP)

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and United States Vice President Mr Mike Pence hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of an ASEAN Summit in Singapore on November 14. (AFP)

The House on the Hill

For all that, Myanmar is not even close to being high up on the agenda for the Trump Administration. Instead, it is lawmakers in Congress – the US House of Representatives and Senate, often referred to as Capitol Hill – who are most engaged.

This marks a break from the previous eight years under President Obama, when the White House led Myanmar policy. Encouraged by initial overtures from the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, in 2009, Obama’s administration sought to encourage and support the transition from a very early stage, making it a foreign policy priority within the broader “pivot to Asia”.

Under Obama, “momentum and engagement shifted away from Congress where it had been during the Bush administration, towards the White House and State Department,” says Marston. “I see this as a reversion to the pre-Obama status quo on Burma policy being based in the Congress.”

Lawmakers have pushed hard for tougher action to be taken against Myanmar. Standing in the way of these plans is Senate majority leader Mr Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky who is also a long-time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Earlier this year, McConnell’s refusal to budge meant that Congress had to remove provisions targeting Myanmar from the National Defense Authorization Act so that it could be passed, sparking anger among some fellow lawmakers.

In October, McConnell told Reuters that it would not be good policy for Congress to join the international “pile-on” against Aung San Suu Kyi, who he described as “the best hope we have for genuine Burmese democracy in the future”.

He added that he didn’t think Congress could play a “helpful” role on Myanmar “beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed on individuals”, suggesting it would be better left to the secretary of state.

Although pressure from Congress is only likely to increase as a result of the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections, it’s not expected to have much effect on McConnell.

Why does Congress traditionally take the lead on Myanmar? For decades, lawmakers were enraptured by Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle against military rule. Supporting regime change in Myanmar was a bipartisan cause.

Mr Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, says Congress’s role on Myanmar reflects the idealism infused in the US political system.

From 2006 to 2013, when he was based at Australia’s Macquarie University researching Myanmar’s economy, Turnell would visit the United States on a near-monthly basis to lobby members of Congress about Myanmar.

He says it was “really easy” to get them interested, and contrasted this with the “more pragmatic” attitude in Australia, where it was hard to get politicians to take up Myanmar.

“American politicians are idealistic: they really believe the US is the ‘City on the Hill’ … whose replication is the redemption of mankind,” he says. “The only avenue through which we could get most Myanmar stuff done was through the US … the political game was a Washington one.”

Of course, it still is; Turnell regularly visits Washington, but now argues against sanctions.

Mr David Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University, says idealism infused US policy because the country had no other real interest in Myanmar. “We could let our idealism play a role,” he says. “So we ended up with sanctions on Myanmar that were more severe than sanctions against North Korea. It was crazy.”

We the people (sort of)

But there are other forces at work, too. The US political system was designed to encourage – or even require – strong interaction between political institutions and the people, says Mr Akram Elias, president of Washington-based consulting firm Capital Communications Group. “The founders of the US never conceived of government as a means of solving problems. Solutions need to come from the people,” he says.

Foreign policy stands out among other policy areas in the US because so few people are actually interested in it, Elias says. Essentially, they’ve delegated their responsibility upward, to lawmakers, lobbyists, the federal government, think tanks and the media.

In foreign policy, think tanks, human rights groups and business lobbies are particularly powerful. Most think tanks are politically affiliated to some degree and Trump is considered closest to the conservative Heritage Foundation, but as Heritage has more of a domestic focus the influence of think tanks on foreign policy seems to have declined post-Obama. It’s difficult to measure their impact and influence, but if nothing else they are often a recruiting ground for White House staff.

On Myanmar, the media has played an important role in recent years due to its coverage of Rakhine State, placing pressure on lawmakers and the White House to take up the issue.

It is also partly responsible for creating a “man on the street” awareness of Rakhine and the Rohingya – relatively unusual for a foreign policy issue but similar to Myanmar under military rule.

“I would have taxi drivers in Washington who would know Aung San Suu Kyi but not know the name Myanmar,” says Steinberg. “Now I cannot go anywhere without being asked about Rakhine.”

“This is the defining issue for US relations with [Myanmar] at this particular time. Before the defining issue was Aung San Suu Kyi … We built her up and we tore her down.”

During a recent visit to the United States on the East-West Center’s Senior Journalist Seminar programme, I experienced this first-hand: people with little apparent connection to Myanmar raising, unprompted, the “Rohingya genocide”.

In Detroit, one of the country’s most ethnically and religiously diverse cities, I met two young Muslim politicians who are part of what’s known as the “Blue Muslim Wave” – the more than 90 Muslim Americans who ran for public office this year, partly in response to the election of Trump.

The son of Yemeni immigrants, Mr Abraham Aiyash narrowly lost a Democratic primary for a Senate seat in Michigan in August. He’s helped organise many protests and rallies in support of the Rohingya; a recent demonstration was attended by two members of Congress, a state senator, a state representative, the mayor and city council members. “It’s an issue that folks care about,” Aiyash says. “Beyond whether they’re Muslim or not, it’s an issue of just genocide – point blank.”

Last October, Mr Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat who has served in Michigan’s House of Representatives since 2016, introduced a resolution “to condemn the violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and pursue policies that will permanently ensure their safety and protect their human rights”.

He says it was simply about standing up for injustice, wherever it occurs. “I don’t know a single individual in my district who happens to be from [the Rohingya] community but it’s an atrocity that needs to be addressed and people need to speak about.”

Mr Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat who sits in Michigan's House of Representatives, says campaigning for the Rohingya is simply about standing up for justice. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

Mr Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat who sits in Michigan’s House of Representatives, says campaigning for the Rohingya is simply about standing up for justice. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

State: keeping it all real

Amid these lofty sentiments, it is the State Department that tries to keep everything grounded in reality. Its official role is to implement the policy of the White House, but in the course of doing its day-to-day work, its bureaucrats wield a significant amount of influence.

Much has been made of the “gutting” of the State Department under Trump’s first secretary of state, Mr Rex Tillerson, which left dozens of ambassadorships unfilled and lots of gaping holes within the upper reaches of the department.

On Myanmar, though, there has been some continuity. The US has in place an ambassador, Mr Scot Marciel (although his term is due to end early next year and no replacement has so far been proposed), and there are several high-ranking State Department officials engaged with Myanmar, notably Mr Patrick Murphy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

On Myanmar, the State Department is generally seen as pro-engagement and sceptical about the effectiveness of sanctions, or any other measures driven by a sense of outrage and a desire to “do something” or “send a message”. Such measures might enable the US to take the moral high ground but in the eyes of some at the State Department they are unlikely to help Myanmar, and could seriously damage the bilateral relationship.

In the wake of the military clearance operations in Rakhine, for example, the State Department initially took a moderate tone, possibly to give Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration more time and space to formulate its own response.

So when Murphy of the State Department appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 5, 2017, he was grilled by representatives on his reluctance to use the term “ethnic cleansing” in regard to Rakhine. After Murphy said that the “important thing now is action to end the violence”, he was quickly cut off by Mr Gerry Connolly (Democrat, Virginia).

“I get that, Mr Murphy. But, you know, I am an English lit major; words mean something. And you are still evidencing a reluctance to call it ethnic cleansing. My question to you is, why?” the congressman responded.

One US government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that in some quarters there was “a level of frustration” over the US response to Rakhine.

“They’re saying, okay, has what we’ve done worked? We’re not getting results, so is it time for a different approach?”

But to those who seek tougher measures, “Our response is to ask the question, what will really help Myanmar? How effective will this particular measure be – will it lead to an improvement?

“Fundamentally, the differences in policy towards Myanmar are relatively small. We agree on the goals – to stay engaged and to tackle Rakhine.”

Within the State Department, opinions can also differ between the embassy, whose staff are closer to the ground, the Burma Desk in Washington, which is part of the broader Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, and other State Department bureaus, such as the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs.

Bringing a degree of order and coordination to this is the assistant secretary of state at the top of the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs – a position that has been vacant for the past two years.

“It’s like the quarterback is missing,” says Mr Murray Hiebert, a senior associate at CSIS and long-time Myanmar observer. “That’s where a lot of energy has come from. This is the person who gets up every morning thinking about Asia. It’s not like they set policy but they do drive policy.”

As a result, most of Southeast Asia has seen a degree of policy continuity. But this has been untenable in regard to Myanmar as the mood has darkened in Washington over the Rakhine crisis.

Where possible the embassy in Yangon has sought to continue support for the Myanmar government, Hiebert says, but it necessarily has to be around the margins.

“Setting aside Rakhine totally, I think there’s still a bit of hope in Yangon that we can help to keep the democratic reforms going,” Hiebert says. “They’re discouraged though because they don’t seem to get a lot of support from the Myanmar government.”

Reporting for this story was conducted as part of the Senior Journalists Seminar, an annual programme for journalists from the United States, Asia and the Middle-East run by the East-West Center, a US non-profit organisation that promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific.

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