The easing of U.S. sanctions against Myanmar will allow the government’s severe human rights violations to worsen.

The easing of U.S. sanctions against Myanmar will allow the government’s severe human rights violations to worsen.

Have you heard of the Rohingya? Most haven’t, and that’s no coincidence.

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority of 1.3 million in the Buddhist country of Myanmar, and while more than one hundred minority groups exist within Myanmar, the Rohingya face an unparalleled level of persecution, which many studies have labelled genocide.

U.S. President Barack Obama has agreed to ease the targeted sanctions against Myanmar as a reward for holding democratic elections last year. However, doing so would relinquish any leverage the United States has over Myanmar for their human rights violations.


The Myanmar government denies that the Rohingya are indigenous to the country, claiming instead that they are Bengali. Therefore, they’ve lacked official citizenship since 1982 and are considered by the government to be illegal aliens.

In 1978, the Rohingya were victims of a military operation to forcibly relocate them to the remote Rakhine state of Myanmar, during which they were “abused, raped, and murdered.” Similar abuses continue today due to the military’s large Parliamentary presence.


Aung San Suu Kyi was believed to be one who could bring change to one of southeast Asia’s poorest countries; she is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leads Myanmar’s first democratically elected government.

Following President Obama’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on 14th September, he said “Daw Suu is the first one to indicate that a lot of work remains to be done, but it’s on the right track.” President Obama uses her honorific title, Daw.

Though, she turns a blind eye to the Rohingya. She refuses to recognize the problem as one of Myanmar’s and discourages the international community from pinning the issue to her government. And, as Myanmar’s main representative outside the country, Daw Suu’s attitude toward the Rohingya has influenced leaders across the world, namely President Obama.


However, Daw Suu isn’t the only one at fault. The U.S. has a vested interest in ensuring the public has a positive view of its involvement in Myanmar. After helping to forge democracy in the country and supporting Daw Suu, a controversial figure, this situation has the potential to turn out like countless failed U.S. interventions.

So, in order to preserve the United States’ image, President Obama plans to cancel the executive orders declaring a state of emergency in Myanmar. With the end of these executive orders will come the end of most sanctions imposed upon Myanmar, which President Obama claims are the benefits “from a new way of doing business and a new government.”

In reality, such actions aim to better the United States’ image in the international community, but their real effect will be the loss of leverage over Myanmar for its human rights violations.


While some argue that sanctions have not been effective in dealing with the government’s persecution of the Rohingya people, a relief in sanctions will likely cause conditions to worsen for the minority.

The sanctions imposed on Myanmar are targeted against more than one hundred individuals, many of whom have ties to the military and were responsible for crimes against the Rohingya people. With these individuals regaining access to their finances and subsequent power, it’s unlikely the Rohingya situation will improve.

And, while they technically could be reinstated, the relief of U.S. sanctions may inspire other countries to do the same before reinstatement. Sanctions are more effective when they are imposed multilaterally for an extended and continuous period of time, so what the U.S. plans to do comes with long term side effects, most notably threatening the efficacy of future sanctions against Myanmar.

Because of this, it’s likely the international community will face difficulty if it ever decides to address the Rohingya genocide. To avoid such a scenario, President Obama should strongly reconsider his decision to remove this set of sanctions.

Featured picture: Copyrights/Flickr

Drew Harper is a Yale Young Global Scholar in International Affairs and Security.

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