Kill the Muslims. That's how the latest version of the Muslim ban is shaping up. Started shortly after Donald Trump made it clear to the world that Muslims were not welcome in the United States, other countries started their own, more brutal and deadly effective ban.
The Myanmar military maims and massacres Muslims as they run them out of their country. In Myanmar, it’s not enough to ban Muslims; they are being permanently banished. Army regulars are chasing Muslim Rohingya toward and over a recently beefed-up border wall that is a low-tech, high-risk strip of land made of land mines and barbed wire. There is no big, beautiful door in this border wall.
Without mincing words, the United Nations has now declared what is happening in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing.” Yale researchers and Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari agree that it looks like genocide.
Enter an expressly “America First” administration as ethnic cleansing returns to the world stage and hits the headlines. Not our problem, apparently. In this new world, Rohingya are as likely to see the American cavalry coming as Midwesterners are to experience Martians landing in Chippewa Falls.
As in most attacks on minority groups and their human rights, the issues are complex, justifications sometimes seem rational, and a few bad and violent actors amidst a larger innocent civilian population suck up all the attention and force decisively violent reactions. The Rohingya are no different. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is accused of attacking police stations and killing officers. Myanmar’s military calls ARSA a terrorist organization, claiming the organization has ties to foreign groups.
ARSA’s terrorist label gives foreign nations cover for their official support of Myanmar’s measures. China and India show sympathy for the Myanmar leadership. Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the other hand, focus on Rohingya civilian suffering and the very real humanitarian crisis. These two Muslim-majority nations lead the criticism of the Myanmar military and the nation’s leader, Nobel laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi.
Terrorism charges aren’t the only thing complicating international intervention for the hounded Muslim minority. Rich oil, gas, and deep port Chinese naval basing opportunities in the Rohingya’s Myanmar state of Rakhine add significant geopolitical concerns to the mix. China is hoping to complete an oil pipeline through the Rohingya territory and loosen its dependence on today’s easily cut off foreign oil deliveries. The Chinese recognize that if they further befriend and side with the Myanmar leadership they win the spoils.
Neighboring Bangladeshis are not holding their breath waiting for the Americans to intervene (or even notice), and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recognizes refugees fleeing Myanmar are her problem alone. Hasina won’t waste her breath requesting American help, telling Reuters that “[Trump] already declared his mind…so why should I ask?”
It hasn’t always been this way. The last big ethnic cleansing action that got the world’s attention also got the world to intervene. In 2014, thousands of Yazidis chased to an Iraqi mountaintop got choppers and water and a whole lot of help during the Obama administration. It may have been late and it may not have been enough, but the Islamic State’s attack on this Iraqi minority was stopped. It helped that American troops and materiel were nearby and ready to act.
What can be done? Praying for the salvation of innocent souls is a start, but not very effective. An imperfect United Nations — still reeling from President Trump's pointedly critical General Assembly speech — could supply a moral voice, political pressure, international condemnation, refugee relief, and perhaps even a few peacekeeping troops carrying peashooters. For the most part, however, collective intervention by the international community is shut out.
Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, is nominally in charge of her government and finally made some late, if welcome, conciliatory remarks regarding the 500,000 Rohingya Muslims that have crossed over as refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave Suu Kyi a call to tell her he was aware of the abuses — 214 Rohingya villages have been destroyed — and to ask that Myanmar curb the violence. Suu Kyi, however, is careful not to criticize Myanmar’s military, conscious that she is always only a few speeches away from a potential return to prison or house arrest.
America First downplays universal human rights, privileges national sovereignty, rejects refugees, and actively seeks to ban Muslims at home. That combo is the Rohingya’s worst nightmare. Donald Trump’s U.N. speech has given further license to other nations to be as bad as they want to be at home, so long as their behavior does not directly threaten American territory or disadvantage the American economy. Everything else gets a pass.
Banning whole categories of people, singling out and deriding individuals for their appearance or affiliations, or saying it’s OK for patriots and police to rough-up others keeps viewer ratings up and Twitter followers coming, but is unworthy of a great nation’s leader. President Trump needs to knock it off.
Border walls and willy-nilly condemnation of diverse groups and people is interpreted abroad as open season on minorities and greenlighting state violence. What’s happening in Myanmar is an extreme and murderous version of Trump’s Muslim ban.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.