With the election approaching, Dhaka is busy greeting foreign delegates and observers. The foreign observers are all invariably pressing for a free and fair election. It appears a balanced goal of the Westerners holding to their deep convictions of democracy and freedom. However, the policy is riddled with inconsistency and only appears subordinate to the geostrategic goals. The esteemed values of democracy and freedom are not sacrosanct per se — rather only viewed from a narrow geostrategic prism.
While the US is placing too much attention on the upcoming election, it is missing out on the urgent crisis in the region—the Rohingya crisis. The US’s handling of Myanmar was shambolic, with flimsy leverage on Myanmar. Rather, US’s diplomacy was focused solely to stopgap measures, that overlooked the steady worsening of the crisis.
Myanmar is a classical example of how Western emphasis on democracy can be so tenuous. The arbitrary seizure of power in Myanmar—abandoning election results did not miss the eagle eye of the United States. Surely, Myanmar holds all the trappings of a rogue state prancing with its brutality at the heart of South and Southeast Asia, a major theatre of the US’s vaunted Indo-pacific strategy. In 2017, Myanmar had flushed out 11 million Rohingyas—igniting a dismal humanitarian disaster. For the whims and caprice of the Myanmar ruling cliques, Bangladesh bears the brunt—with the country strained on holding the burdens of astronomical refugees despite depleting aid directed to Rohingya. However, the myriad of Myanmar’s misdemeanors only elicited vacuous criticism and did not propel any effective policies to hold Myanmar accountable for its blatant human rights infringements.
Granted, US offered $1.6 billion in aid since the genesis of the crisis. However, this is only a stopgap measure and does not ensure an effective resolution of the crisis. The Biden administration failed to calibrate an official response in addressing the crisis, and the American policy only continued sanctions on the key military general imposed by Donald Trump.
The United States is one of the key players in the region. When US President Barack Obama was at the helm, the US greeted Myanmar’s entry into the global economy following a protracted period of self-imposed exile since 1962. Obama mended fences with Myanmar in 2012 after an election that infused belief in the revival of democracy in Myanmar, although later Myanmar’s tryst with democracy proved ludicrously short-lived. In 2016, sensing a semblance of a democratic regime in Myanmar, United States put an end to the remnant of sanctions. This shows that the US holds leverage on Myanmar—at least the US wielded a pivotal role in facilitating Myanmar’s entry to democracy. Given the stubborn attitudes of Myanmar, the sanctions on trade and investment can be reimposed and the scope of civilian sanctions can be significantly broadened to punish Junta and its accomplices. While America is not a supplier of military hardware to Myanmar, however through pressurizing US’s security partners the US can smother the access of military hardware that is used for brutally clamping down on nascent democratic movements.
However, none of this action materialized. Evidently, America is restrained in its foreign policy adventures and is not inclined in locking horns with China, and exerting pressures might spiral into a regional conflagration that is distasteful for the US. Conveniently, thus, the US had shied away from one of the pressing crises of humanity and the arbitrary and strong-arm rule of the Myanmar Junta.
The worrisome state of Rohingya languishing in the camps is a travesty of human rights and the dignity of humanity. Being a grudging host of the refugees, Bangladesh demonstrated benevolent generosity for the Rohingya, although the groundswell of local discontent turned against Rohingya. The government headed by Sheikh Hasina remained staunchly committed to the safety and security of Rohingya—whereby a register of the public opinion shows that the local people in Cox’s Bazar find their resource strained due to Rohingya. The Rohingya crisis paints a grim case of humanity, straying from their ancestral homes and inhabiting lives in outright precarity.
Any political turnaround in Dhaka will hang the fate of the Rohingya in balance. Rohingyas were greeted with unparalleled altruism by Sheikh Hasina. Although the long-term presence of Rohingya had visibly aggrieved the general mass, the government remained stuck to its commitment. Parties with nationalist affinities in Bangladesh railed against the government and viewed the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh as a fiasco of the government’s policies. These views gain traction as nationalist and populist parties inflame popular sentiments with xenophobic agenda. Hence, any engineered transition in Dhaka might put the fate of Rohingya in jeopardy—resulting in a deep crisis.
The crisis of Rohingya, the US’s handling of Myanmar, and the recent shuffling of US diplomats in Dhaka—all indicate a US policy of flaws and amiss. Despite holding leverage on Myanmar, US failed to avert a humanitarian disaster and an arbitrary rein of power—events that are anathema to the United States. In contrast, the US is showing an exaggerated response in anticipating Bangladesh’s election, despite the repeated promise of the government of holding a free and fair election. This incongruence in US policy does not bode well for the future.
[Photo by Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
*Mehjabin Maliha Hossain is an international affairs researcher and pursuing her doctoral studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.