As Obama Eased Myanmar Sanctions, Some Saw Warnings of a Massacre
An aerial view of the exodus of Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Years before a campaign by the Myanmar military targeting Rohingya civilians made international headlines, the warning signs of a potential genocide were there.
The Rohingya have long been a persecuted ethnic minority in Myanmar, where many in the majority Buddhist nation maintain they are illegal immigrants. For decades, the military junta that ruled the country steadily eroded the rights and privileges of the Rohingya, laying the groundwork for widespread violence against them.
In 2016, the Obama administration, seeing an opportunity to nurture a fledgling democracy, prepared to lift U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar. It was an opportunity for progress — but human rights groups and some officials also worried that lifting the sanctions would embolden the military to further turn against the Rohingya.
The military junta’s discrimination against the Rohingya began back in 1982, with a law that stripped them of their citizenship in the country. In 1994, Myanmar stopped issuing Rohingya children birth certificates. In some areas, local authorities restricted their travel, marriage and birth rates, limiting families to two children.
In 1997, the United States imposed sanctions against Myanmar’s military junta for repressing the country’s democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi — a popular leader and the daughter of a military leader. Suu Kyi, who spent several years under house arrest, garnered support from the U.S., and became regarded as human rights icon.
“The main function of sanctions… over the last 20 years is that they gave Suu Kyi leverage,” Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during President Barack Obama’s second term, told FRONTLINE. “Whenever the military wanted something from the international community — loans or investment or aid or access to the Western banking system — they knew they had to go to Aung San Suu Kyi to ask her permission, because we were not going to lift those sanctions unless she was OK with it.”
Starting in 2010, the military showed a willingness to make democratic reforms and hold elections. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest that year, and her party won seats in parliament in April 2012, when the country held elections. The Obama administration officially began easing sanctions on Myanmar’s access to U.S. investment in July 2012.
But one month before, in June, riots erupted after three Muslim men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman. A Human Rights Watch report said Myanmar’s security forces initially did nothing to stop the violence, and later joined the groups attacking Muslims. The clashes ultimately displaced more than 120,000 Rohingya and other Muslims, who ended up in camps.
Another wave of more organized violence followed in October 2012, targeting Muslim villages.
When Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar that November, he condemned the bloodshed. “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people,” he said, adding: “[T]he Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”
In the ensuing years, influential figures — like the nationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu — began to preach anti-Muslim rhetoric. “In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority,” Wirathu told The Guardian in 2013, blaming Muslims for rape, sexual harassment and bullying.
The Rohingya were not counted during the 2014 census, and were barred from voting in the 2015 election. Suu Kyi’s party won, making her the de facto leader of the civilian government, although she did not control the internal police or the military. She did not speak out about the treatment of the Rohingya.
In 2015, researchers released a report warning that the Rohingya were in grave danger. “We know, from comparing genocides of the past, that there are clear stages,” Thomas MacManus, of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University, told FRONTLINE. “Stage one is stigmatization. Stage two is harassment. After that, we have isolation — people are moved into camps. Stage four is systemic weakening — remove health care, don’t allow any votes. Stage five, which is annihilation.”
By then, MacManus said, the Rohingya appeared to be facing stage five.
The following year, in 2016, the Obama administration and Suu Kyi were in talks about lifting the remaining economic sanctions on the country.
Suu Kyi wanted the U.S. to remove its declaration that Myanmar was in a “state of national emergency,” which allowed the president to impose sanctions. Suu Kyi argued that the order, which had been in place since 1997,
Initially, the Obama administration thought that to lift the order, it would need to drop the economic sanctions. But that would eliminate whatever leverage Suu Kyi and the U.S. had over the military, which concerned some U.S. officials. “We felt that [Myanmar’s] transition was a bit more fragile than it seemed, particularly because the military still had a monopoly on the use of force,” Malinowski said.
Human rights groups also argued against taking that step, saying that sanctions should not be lifted until Myanmar’s transition to democracy was “irreversible.” A Rohingya rights activist told Foreign Policy, “The U.S. should be increasing pressure, not relaxing it.”
Yanghee Lee, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told FRONTLINE that she went to the White House to lobby for keeping the sanctions in place. “I said, ‘Do not lift these sanctions.'” But Lee suggested the administration also had another motive for moving forward. “They were so eager to make this a legacy,” she said.
Suu Kyi and some in the Obama administration maintained that Myanmar needed more sanctions lifted to allow foreign investment and to grow its economy. “The sanctions, in our assessment, were punishing ordinary Burmese,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications during the Obama administration, told Politico Magazine in a recent article.
With Suu Kyi scheduled to visit the U.S. in September 2016, Malinowski said the administration discovered that “there was in fact another legal authority under which we could maintain the sanctions without the declaration of the national emergency,” through legislation Congress had passed. On her visit, Suu Kyi learned about this other option from U.S. lawmakers, and Malinowski said she asked the administration to find a way to maintain restrictions on companies with military ties.
But by then, the decision to drop the last major economic sanctions entirely had already been made, Malinowski said. Ultimately, the Obama administration lifted them in October.
Days later, a relatively unknown Islamist militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claimed responsibility for attacks on three police posts in Myanmar, in which nine border officers were reported killed. As FRONTLINE documents in Myanmar’s Killing Fields, government troops attacked multiple villages in November and December 2016 causing an estimated 90,000 Rohingya to flee.
The U.S. was alarmed. “We, as a government, absolutely did reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi and stressed the urgency of, number one, reining in the military — as difficult as that might have been for her — and number two, finding some way forward that would enable the Rohingya to live in peace and security in the country,” Malinowski said. “Of course, these are the last couple of months of the Obama administration, and perhaps our leverage was not at its highest point.”
Lee, the U.N. rapporteur, said the lifting of sanctions gave the military a “green light” to do what it wanted.
Malinowski was reluctant to attribute what happened to the Rohingya to the lifting of sanctions. “You know, it would be more dramatic to say, ‘Yes, we lifted sanctions and genocide then followed as a direct result,’” he said. “I just… We don’t know.”
Less than a year later, in August 2017 — following another attack on security forces by the militant group — the military began a massive crackdown on the Rohingya, with reports of rapes, mass killings and villages being burned down. In the exodus that followed, more than 690,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, according to the UN. The Myanmar military says it was conducting a counter-insurgency clearance operation against terrorists.
The Trump administration said it was “very concerned” about arrivals in Bangladesh “following allegations of serious human rights abuses in Burma’s Rakhine state, including violent attacks and mass burnings of villages,” in a statement last September. But it did not directly blame the Myanmar government.
Under international pressure, the Myanmar government conducted an internal investigation and concluded that there was no rape, no burning and no killing of civilians by its soldiers. In her public statements since the August campaign, Suu Kyi has defended the military, saying it had been “instructed to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians.”
In Nov. 2017, the U.S. State Department declared the campaign against the Rohingya was “ethnic cleansing,” and one month later, announced sanctions against a top commander in Rakhine, the state from which thousands of Rohingya fled. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, said he didn’t advise broad-based economic sanctions.
The State Department has since launched an investigation into the alleged atrocities, collecting evidence that it says could one day be used to prosecute the military for crimes against humanity.