Helia Ighani is the assistant director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the votes after a landslide election in November 2015, becoming the first fully civilian-led government in Myanmar’s history. Once in power in April 2016, the NLD government released nearly two hundred political prisoners detained by the former military junta government, demonstrating Suu Kyi’s commitment to democratizing the country. However, the new NLD government has not yet attempted to reconcile animosity among Myanmar’s various ethnic groups—in particular, its Rohingya population. Up to 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, facing serious human rights violations, and thousands have been displaced due to violence with Buddhist nationalists (see CFR’s Global Conflict Tracker for an overview of the sectarian violence in Myanmar). Many have criticized Suu Kyi for refusing to touch the Rohingya issue, including the Dalai Lama.
A new Center for Preventive Action (CPA) report, Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar, highlights this concerns and the importance of U.S. involvement in the country’s transition to democracy. Priscilla A. Clapp, the former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar and senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society, argues that reforms over the past five years have transformed Myanmar “from a country of little strategic interest to the United States into one that promises substantial benefit to core U.S. interests in Southeast Asia and beyond.” Yet, as the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell expressed at a recent CPA event, the “deep reservoir of mistrust in the country must be overcome,” regarding the reconciliation of the recognized 135 ethnic minorities in Myanmar and the “very delicate issue” of the Rohingya minority.
Washington has already begun to change its tone on Myanmar. The new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel said he will continue to use “Rohingya”—considered a controversial term by many hardline Buddhists who refer to the unrecognized population as “Bengali”—when referring to the large Muslim community in Myanmar, despite being asked by the government to not bring up the issue. While Washington hinted that it is considering reversing its sanctions policy toward Myanmar, it is counting on the new government to improve human rights conditions. The Obama administration will decide on whether to continue the sanctions when the underlying legal basis for the program expires next week.
Clapp details policy options for facilitating a democratic transition with the NLD government, including U.S. policy recommendations relating to human rights conditions and sanctions on Myanmar. Over the coming year, she recommends that the United States should:
• Assist with the establishment of a reconciliation government.
• Provide assistance for economic development and conflict mediation in Rakhine State and encourage the new government to give legal status to the Rohingya minority.
• Revise the legal structure of remaining sanctions and begin to sunset sanctions specific to Myanmar.
• In consultation with the NLD, develop a strategy to expand dialogue with Myanmar’s military.
In the long term, she encourages the United States to:
• Expand the purview of U.S. assistance to include capacity-building for government institutions.
• Help rebuild the justice system.
• Promote economic development at the state level to consolidate peace with ethnic minorities.
• Lead a regional effort to find a humane solution to Rohingya statelessness and legal status in neighboring countries.
• Promote Myanmar’s political and economic integration into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Read Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar to get Clapp’s full analysis and learn more about Myanmar’s transition to democracy.