A nun pleads with police not to harm protesters in Myitkyina in Myanmar's Kachin state amid a crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup. Photo: AFP / Myitkyina News Journal

US President Joe Biden will host his first in-person foreign leader at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide on April 16.

The meeting will also be Suga’s first trip to Washington in his capacity as national leader and it will serve as an opportunity for both leaders to recalibrate the US-Japan relationship and commit to working together on a number of pressing issues, many of them focusing on the challenges of a rising China as well as Covid-19. 

Yet, amid their important discussions – ranging from China’s incursions into Japanese territorial waters and airspace; Taiwan’s increasingly perilous security situation; South China Sea tensions; the Australia-India-Japan-US “Quad” strategic dialogue; securing supply chains; joint AI and 5G development; and Covid-19 public health measures – human rights issues should receive their fair share of emphasis on the April 16 agenda. 

Japanese government sources shared last week that Prime Minister Suga and President Biden will issue a joint statement addressing human rights abuses in China after their meeting concludes – an encouraging sign. Such an announcement will bring further attention to China’s mass incarceration of its Uighur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang and its crackdown in Hong Kong. 

This rare development of both Japanese and American leaders expressing concern over human rights in China is welcome. Kudos to both leaders for their leadership on these issues. Yet Suga’s and Biden’s announcement ought to also bring attention to other urgent and ongoing human rights tragedies involving China, North Korea and Myanmar. 

China’s Christian community – estimated at between 100 to 130 million people – has suffered increased state suppression that has included the destruction of churches, the removal of crosses from church roofs as well as the harassment of priests.

According to ChinaAid’s 2018 report, there has been a sharp uptick in the persecution of Christians in China consisting of more than 5,000 people being detained, of which over 1,000 were church leaders.

Chinese Christians attend Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing, on December 24, 2016. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Recent years have seen Chinese authorities make efforts to sinicize Christianity by disconnecting relations with Western Christian entities, reinterpreting teachings according to “socialist values” and rewriting scripture.

The Chinese Communist Party has also stepped up its campaign to limit the scope of Christianity in China, utilize state-backed churches as mouthpieces of CCP propaganda and shut down unregistered congregations.

Furthermore, the CCP is working to prevent Christianity from being passed down to future generations by prohibiting minors from attending church services and pursuing studies about the faith. Churches are also not allowed to encourage minors to pursue careers as Christian clergy.   

More broadly, Biden’s and Suga’s joint statement should call out the overall worsening of human rights in China since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012. Freedoms of expression and religion have been increasingly curtailed and the detention of political dissidents and human rights activists have expanded over the past decade.

North Korea is notorious for its extensive system of gulags where political prisoners are starved, tortured, raped and subjected to forced labor and executions. Satellite imagery of the past decade indicates that North Korea is expanding its gulags.

The cruelty extends beyond the political prisoners themselves, with the regime often targeting members of the prisoners’ extended families as well, subjecting them to imprisonment and torture. 

President Biden and Prime Minister Suga should advocate for the release of Pyongyang’s political prisoners, their families as well as all surviving Japanese nationals who the regime has kidnapped in past decades. Additionally, a thorough accounting of all deceased Japanese abductees and their remains must be demanded of North Korea. 

Washington and Tokyo should also call for the immediate halt of the North’s ongoing expansion of its gulag system. 

Family members grieve over the body of teenage bystander Tun Tun Aung at a cemetery in Mandalay on March 23, 2021, a day after she was shot dead in front of the family home by security forces. Photo: AFP

The Myanmar military’s February 1 coup and bogus claim it aims to restore democracy to the country initially involved the detainment of senior civilian politicians and armed forces’ critics.

While some of the military’s initial measures consisted of severed communications, restricted access to banks and roadblocks, junat leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has resorted to the widespread use of deadly force to quell protests that have taken place throughout the country. 

Demonstrators and civilians have been shot with live rounds, resulting in the deaths of an estimated more than 700 people, and the authorities have engaged in night-time raids to arrest protesters. Some of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups who have been engaged in insurgencies against the government for decades have ramped up attacks to oppose the coup, increasing prospects for a full civil war.  

While Japan was initially reticent to join others in speaking out against the Myanmar coup, it has joined the other “Quad” members in calling for a return to democracy. This was a notable development given Tokyo’s influence in Myanmar as one of its largest foreign investors and donors of foreign aid.  

Given this extensive relationship, joint sanctions by Washington, Tokyo and their partners can make a difference in impacting Myanmar’s economy. 

Biden and Suga should make clear that they are watching Myanmar closely and are prepared to levy additional sanctions on the regime. Both leaders should again speak out strongly against the coup and the killing of civilians. They should also announce joint efforts towards implementing additional asset freezes. 

Sadly, human rights abuses in Myanmar do not end with the recent coup. Since 2012, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have faced ethnic cleansing and have fled from their native Rakhine state to camps in Bangladesh to escape clearance operations by security forces and Buddhist militias. 

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walk through paddy fields and flooded land after crossing the border into Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands fled Rakhine state to camps near Cox’s Bazar. Half were children. Photo: Patrick Brown / Unicef

Believed to be the descendants of Arab and Persian traders with ethnic and linguistic ties to Bengal – present day Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal State – the Rohingyas came to Myanmar generations ago and are regarded by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

The victims of widespread discrimination by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, the Rohingyas face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to education, medical care, basic social services as well as civil service employment. 

Nationalist Buddhist organizations have incited attacks against Rohingyas and Burmese security forces have detained, raped, tortured, conducted forced labor and executed community members.

President Biden and Prime Minister Suga need to emphasize to the regime that the plight of the Rohingyas has not been forgotten and remains a top concern. 

Regionally, the US and Japan together enjoy considerable leverage on the country’s military, economic and geopolitical realms. As President Biden and Prime Minister Suga take their working relationship to the next stage on April 16, they should focus on ways in which they can augment their influence and capabilities for badly needed human rights advocacy in the Indo-Pacific. 

Ted Gover, Ph.D. (@TedGover), is the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.