KAYIN, Burma – In October 2016, outgoing President Barack Obama lifted economic sanctions against Burma with considerable fanfare, citing the Asian country's "substantial advances to promote democracy."
Less than two years later, that decision looks like a major foreign policy mistake, according to a variety of experts and human rights activists who told Fox News that Burma - also known as Myanmar - has slipped back into a miltary-dominated dictatorship that continues to wage widespread and violent ethnic cleansing campaigns against both Muslim and Christian minorities.
The most visible victims have been the country's Rohingya Muslims, whose fate has been well covered by the international media. But the Kachin and Karen people, as well as Christians across the Buddhist-dominant nation, are among those who have been displaced, their villages burned to the ground, with innocent civilians salughtered by members of the Burmese military.
“The lifting of sanctions on the Burma government has enabled the Burma Army to resupply their forces and resume attacks on the ethnic minorities in full force,” Ephraim Mattos, East Asia Operations Manager for The Nazarene Fund (TNF), a humanitarian group that works to support the plight of Christians and persecuted minorities in Burma, told Fox News.
Subsequently, the Trump administration is walking back some of the Obama-era policies. On Friday, the Treasury Department announced it has imposed economic sanctions on four Burmese military and border guard commanders, and two military units, over their apparent role in “ethnic cleansing” and “widespread human rights abuses” against ethnic minority groups.
The official U.S State Department line is that “Burma remains a country in transition to democracy, and faces significant ongoing challenges and human rights issues.” Since 2012, American taxpayers have dished out more than $500 million to “support Burma’s transition, advance the peace process and improve the lives of millions,” the State Department’s fact sheet reads.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected in the coming days to release a comprehensive report that may go as far as to label the actions of the Burmese forces against the Rohingya as “genocide.” That would be a significant step above the “ethnic cleansing” classification, which has little substance in international law, and would require the U.S to take significant steps to “prevent and punish” those responsible.
The previous sanctions, which had been in place since 1997, targeted prominent individuals and companies known to abuse human rights, imprison activists, abet the old military regime, acquire weapons, and pilfer finances. The aim of the sanctions was not to punish ordinary Burmese.
“The Obama administration’s lifting of U.S sanctions on Burma was too much, too soon," said Olivia Enos, Asian studies policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. "The leverage gained by sanctions was significant, and the decision to lift them sacrificed that much needed leverage at a moment in time when it had great opportunity to advance democratic norms in Burma.”
According to Enos, “it is time for a broad reset on U.S strategy in Burma.”
Critics now accuse the Obama administration of being too quick to claim a foreign policy victory before leaving office. This despite signs even as the sanctions were being scrubbed in late 2016 that the military junta had embarked on a vicious air campaign against churches and schools.
In groundbreaking 2015 national elections – the first free vote allowed by the military in a generation – former political prisoner, Nobel laureate, and much-hyped pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) dominated in a landslide victory. That electoral triumph was packaged as a new era for the blood-stained nation, one that would usher in a platform of peace and prosperity.
“When the Burma Army allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected, it was a strategic international PR move,” Mattos contended. “While the world applauded her election and congratulated the government for suddenly being so democratic, they failed to recognize that the Burmese Army and its generals are the real leaders.”
Suu Kyi is constitutionally not allowed to assume the title of president, given that she has foreign-born sons. She is instead referred to as “State Counselor,” and considered by some to be in charge.
Despite high hopes, however, Suu Kyi has failed to publicly acknowledge the ethnic cleaning of the Rohingya, and has drawn increasing criticism from her former suuporters in the international human rights community.
“It may have been a mistake for the Obama administration to lift the sanctions, but everyone expected better things from Aung San Suu Kyi,” noted Faith McDonnell, founding advisory board member of Save the Persecuted Christians coalition. “But it has been argued that she really doesn’t have control over the military.”
That sentiment is largely echoed by those inside Burma.
“When the election happened, there was hope in the constitution of power sharing and the people would benefit with peace. But nothing happened, the poverty and despair stayed in our country because the military still rules the country,” said Saw Kwe Htoo Vin, Vice Chairman of the ethnic minority group the Karen National Union (KNU). “We thought maybe there would be some action in the international courts against the military for what they had done to us, but there has been no real national reconciliation. Yet the power has just stayed in the hands of the military. Aung San can’t do anything; the military is always watching her.”
Others in Burma told Fox News it would be “dangerous” for Suu Kyi to speak out against the military.
But others have argued that restoring sanctions would do little good in the small South East Asian country of 53 million, and would have the negative ramification of pushing the military closer to China, and potentially negating any movement toward democracy.
Erin Murphy, founder and principal of the Burma-focused Inle Advisory Group who served as the Special Assistant to the Office of the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma under Obama, maintained that the lifting of sanctions was not a mistake.
“Most of the sanctions programs were formulated during the junta years and the dynamics and the situation, for which there has been a lot of progress – although still a lot of problems – have changed since then,” Murphy said. “Sanctions are an important tool, but its leverage is quite limited, and the scope of the previous sanctions would not provide much leverage in deterring military behavior currently. There is also the question of who you are punishing and unintended consequences.”
Murphy contended that while “nearly all Myanmar people wanted democracy and freedom from military rule,” most – including non-Bamar ethnic groups and non-Buddhists – “do not support citizenship for the Rohingya and approve of what the military and government is doing.”
But on the ground, some sharply disagree.
“We aren’t happy with this situation,” said Col. Roger Khin, a Defense Chief for the ethnic Karen people in Kayin state. “Like other nations, minorities just do not want to feel oppressed anymore. We want equal rights; we want freedom from fear. We want to live our lives without always asking for permission.”
Representatives to the Myanmar Embassy in Washington and the UN did not respond to requests for a comment and interview. And for those left to languish within the walls of Burma, there is a sense that it is only a matter of time before their lives are again upended.
“We are three years into a supposed peace process and nothing has come,” Rogers added. “The military is testing us in small ways. If fighting breaks out, we will fight back. We must.”