Understanding The Release of and Response to the State Department’s Rohingya Report
As Mike Pompeo settled into his post as Secretary of State in late spring and early summer, the U.S. State Department confronted a number of challenges. In addition to coping with the deleterious thinning of the department’s ranks under President Trump’s first Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the diplomatic agency faced the prospect of working to counter Russia; articulating new policy toward Iran following the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; and overseeing America’s nascent negotiations with North Korea, which aim to secure the total denuclearization of the dictatorial regime.
Amidst this upheaval, the department also quietly considered whether to designate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar a genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslims. As this debate raged internally, a United Nations fact-finding mission released a report at the end of August arguing that the commander of Myanmar's army and other top generals should face charges of genocide for their planned targeting of the Rohingya. At the time of the report’s release, Myanmar’s military had killed at least 10,000 Rohingya and displaced approximately 700,000 into nearby Bangladesh. Witnesses have recounted horrifying atrocities, from the razing of entire villages and the burning of Rohingya alive in their homes to the systematic raping of women and girls.
Despite essentially agreeing with the U.N.’s account of the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya, and even going as far as to call it “well-planned and coordinated,” the State Department reached a different conclusion than did the U.N. On September 24, 2018, with no fanfare, press release, or public rollout, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor posted the State Department’s report on the crisis in Myanmar online. The report did not mention the word genocide once, nor did it describe the army’s well-documented acts of brutal violence as “crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, while the report could be used to justify further sanctions against the government of Myanmar, it offered no new steps that the U.S. would take to combat the systemic violence targeting the Rohingya minority.
On the day that the State Department posted its report online, Politico’s Nahal Toosi pinpointed perhaps one of its most disquieting features: its “strikingly low-key release.” Earlier reporting had indicated that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo planned to deliver a speech on the violence in Myanmar ahead of the one-year anniversary of the crisis on August 25, 2018. While excerpts from his speech leaked to Politico included references to the department’s then-unreleased report on the Rohingya crisis, the statement Pompeo released on the anniversary of the violence did not mention the results of the department’s inquiry at all. Nor were the results of the inquiry released in the month of August. Instead, the report came at the end of September, and those closely following the debate over whether the U.S. would designate the violence a genocide were left waiting an additional month for the anticlimactic posting of the State Department’s research and determination online.
It is possible to view the report’s inconspicuous release as merely a reflection of the State Department’s honest assessment of the severity of the Rohingya crisis, or as an acknowledgment that the U.S. must prioritize the pursuit of its vital policy interests over humanitarian intervention or increased non-military engagement with a country of limited strategic value to Washington.
But one might more accurately view the quiet release of the State Department’s Rohingya report with a healthy amount of cynicism. The intentionally understated release of the report is, in this view, an expression of the administration’s moral apathy, one born of two grim calculations. The first, that simply posting the report online rather than announcing its findings with fanfare or a speech from Secretary of State Pompeo would help bury it in a relentless news cycle focused more on other matters—chief among them Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation process. The second, that even if Americans took notice of the report, the majority of them simply would not care that the government had decided not to label the violence a genocide or commit itself to further engagement in a foreign country of little significance to U.S. citizens.
While it is impossible to confirm either calculation, the second calculation, were it made, has born out to be true. Of the many criticisms launched at the Trump administration over the past month—and it has been almost a month to the day since the administration released its report on the systematic violence against the Rohingya—few have dealt with its decision not to take stronger action to halt unfolding crimes in Myanmar. Although Myanmar’s targeted mass violence against Rohingya Muslims has once again come to the forefront of the news, this is only because The New York Times recently released a story detailing how Myanmar’s military used Facebook to spread hateful propaganda, incite violence, and control the narrative surrounding that violence. Thus, the focus of the story has shifted from whether the U.S. will designate the violence a genocide and take action to mitigate it to a closer examination of Facebook’s role in disseminating hate speech and exacerbating violence in Myanmar.
That the public, and even lawmakers, seem to have so quickly forgotten the State Department’s harrowing report can be explained in two ways. Perhaps Americans really are so caught up in the news cycle, particularly the implications of Kavanaugh’s confirmation and coverage of the upcoming midterm elections, that they missed the publication of the report. Or perhaps Americans’ silence reflects a more sobering phenomenon: that the majority of Americans have tacitly accepted that their government should do little to halt genocide or unfolding mass atrocities in countries of limited strategic value to the U.S. Their silence is thus not an indication that they simply missed the haunting report amongst the deluge of news that bombards us each day, but rather proof that they have moved on, and do not mind that their government seems to have moved on, too.
(The overhead photo captures Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Credit: Joseph Nair/AP Photo)