Western Officials Ignored Myanmar’s Warning Signs of Genocide


ONE year ago, on Aug. 30, 2017, Myanmar’s military began a bone-crushing massacre against its Muslim Rohingya minority in the village of Tula Toli. Survivors told me they saw dismembered bodies floating in the river. Rape was widespread. An 11-year-old boy described watching soldiers burn his grandmother alive. Out of a population of around 1 million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar last year, more than 700,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh since last August, and an estimated 127,000 still live in squalid displacement camps inside Myanmar. An unknown number have been killed in the army’s assault on their villages.
On Aug. 27, the United Nations issued a powerfully worded report that found that crimes against humanity were committed and called for members of Myanmar’s military to be prosecuted for genocide. But the U.N. report also rightly condemned the international community’s approach to Myanmar—and the world body’s own failings.
 “Systemic discrimination and crimes under international law occurred during a period of significant international engagement in Myanmar, and while the United Nations was supposed to be implementing its Human Rights Up Front Action Plan,” the report said.
Between 2012 and 2017, U.S. and U.N. reports warned that bloodshed was brewing. These warnings were disregarded or played down by officials who believed they could spur Myanmar’s transition from an authoritarian country to a democracy. But as diplomats negotiated with Myanmar’s military junta, the foundations for ethnic cleansing were being laid.
Myanmar maintains that the Muslim Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Prejudice against them is long-standing, but an inflection point came in May 2012, when tension between the ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya exploded. The resulting army clampdown forced 140,000 Rohingya into camps for displaced peoples.
The 2012 violence against the Rohingya “was for all intents and purposes Rakhine state’s Kristallnacht,” said a report by the International State Crime Initiative, referring to a turning point of anti-Semitism in 1930s Nazi Germany.
Yet senior U.S. officials did not recognize the extent of the violence or what it indicated for the future.Yet senior U.S. officials did not recognize the extent of the violence or what it indicated for the future. In a June 19, 2012, cable that gave instructions to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office wrote that “the Burmese government’s initial response has been encouraging and constructive.” World leaders were focused on the country’s democratic transition. For at least two years, the State Department had been trying to spur Myanmar’s transition from a junta to a democracy. It developed a plan in close coordination with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now the de facto leader of Myanmar, to ignite the country’s democratic era. The idea was to kick-start the economy by gradually lifting sanctions to allow for more investment.
There were occasional warnings. In October 2012, then-U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell cabled to Washington after a visit to Rakhine, saying he found “the Rohingya community continues to suffer disproportionately and remains isolated, vulnerable and unable to access education, adequate healthcare or livelihoods.” But such cautions appear to have been ignored by an administration that saw the country as an example of President Barack Obama’s promise to extend a hand for those willing to unclench their fists.
Senior U.S. officials in Washington believed they were the catalyst for reform in Myanmar. In September, W. Patrick Murphy, then the State Department’s special representative to Burma, admiringly described the secretary’s 2011 trip to Myanmar as “Kissinger-esque,” a reference to America’s opening up of China during the Nixon administration. In her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton described U.S. diplomacy in Myanmar as America at its best but also warned that ethnic strife could undermine progress.

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