Rohingya Muslims wait to cross the border to Bangladesh, in a temporary camp outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar November 12, 2017. Picture taken on November 12. Photo: Reuters

The United States and the European Union have a narrow path to bringing a solution to the plight of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This was confirmed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with Myanmar’s leaders on Wednesday, as well as by the EU security policy toward Naypyidaw.

The Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) are mostly stateless. Over 600,000 of them sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh after Myanmar;s military (or Tatmadaw) launched a counterinsurgency campaign against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) last August. Myanmar’s armed forces describe ARSA militants as “Bengali terrorists,” but it is not clear whether they have links with outside jihadist groups.

The United Nations has defined the Tatmadaw’s treatment of Rohingya in Rakhine state as ethnic cleansing. Both the US and the EU have said the military’s operations against ARSA have been disproportionate, as they have also been targeting Rohingya civilians. As a result, Washington and Brussels have decided to reduce defense and security cooperation with Myanmese generals.

Communication channel is open

During his separate talks with Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the Southeast Asian country’s civilian cabinet, Tillerson made clear that the United States wanted an end to violence against the Rohingya, protection for all populations in Rakhine state, voluntary repatriation of refugees and a credible investigation into reported atrocities. He also condemned ARSA’s attacks, but was ambiguous about whether Washington would reimpose sanctions on Naypyidaw’s generals, who are quite firm in defending their conduct.

Tillerson’s visit to Naypyidaw preceded that of EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, scheduled for Sunday.

Asked if the European bloc was monitoring ARSA’s emergence and military potential, an EU spokesperson told Asia Times that the Union “clearly condemned the attacks by ARSA militants on August 25 and that is of course following developments regarding them and their activities. He went on to say that “the EU shares information with relevant partners, including the US, and in relevant international fora, including the UN, on the issue.”

As the real kingmaker in Myanmar is the Tatmadaw, and not the civilian administration headed by former dissident Suu Kyi, the US and the EU will inevitably have to turn to the generals if they want to keep security and humanitarian dialogue going in relation to the Rohingya crisis

As for Brussels’ decision to suspend invitations to General Hlaing and other senior Tatmadaw officers, and review its practical defense cooperation with the Southeast Asian country, the EU spokesperson pointed out that “the EU has kept the communication channel open with the authorities of Myanmar, so as to address the situation in northern Rakhine state and to bring about a swift and sustainable solution”.

Sanctions’ impact

As the real kingmaker in Myanmar is the Tatmadaw, and not the civilian administration headed by former dissident Suu Kyi, the US and the EU will inevitably have to turn to the generals if they want to keep security and humanitarian dialogue going in relation to the Rohingya crisis.

But the European grouping has said it will take additional measures if ongoing violence against the Rohingya does not stop. Washington is also mulling targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw. They would add to the announced withdrawal of military assistance to the Southeast Asian country. Both the EU Parliament and the US Congress have taken the initiative to apply economic pressure on Myanmese generals.

New penalties will certainly lead to a hardening of the Tatmadaw’s stance toward the US and the EU, and that could weaken Suu Kyi’s already limited power. Apart from some exceptions, which include an arms embargo, Brussels and Washington lifted economic and financial sanctions on Myanmar in 2013 and 2016 respectively, after a hybrid civil-military system of government was set up by the ruling generals.

Misreading Myanmar’s power struggle

James Clad, who sought to improve Washington’s relations with Myanmar’s military when he was US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs during 2007-2009, offers more insight into the country’s political power struggle and US-EU sanctions policies. Speaking to Asia Times, he said that “Western and US policymakers should be mindful of the blowback consequences of undifferentiated criticism of Myanmar and of Suu Kyi and display some understanding of the demographic conundrum in which governments in that area (where South Asia meets Southeast Asia) find themselves.”

He added that “any censorious cutting off of ties only recently re-established with Myanmar will be counterproductive insofar as it probably will not modify the behavior of [Myanmar’s] security forces.” According to him, this approach “will also play into the hand of China, eager to regain a predominant position in Myanmar that took a knock with the 2011-2012 opening of civic life so carefully sought by the administration of then US president Barack Obama, diplomats of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the EU.”

The reality is that the Rohingya crisis poses a dilemma for the West. If Washington and Brussels try to support democratic transition in Myanmar through engagement with Myanmar’s generals, they will be blamed for doing too little, too slowly. On the other hand, if the US and EU leaders resume sanctions and restrictions on the Tatmadaw, they will risk losing influence on the country to the benefit of Beijing, and to the detriment of Suu Kyi’s attempts to contain local generals and “Burmese chauvinism.”

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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