Tillerson Must Take Action During Myanmar Visit

On November 15, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will become the highest-ranking official in the Trump Administration to visit Myanmar. His visit comes at a tumultuous time, three months after Myanmar security forces began brutal attacks which resulted in more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country.

“This trip cannot become an endorsement of the current state of affairs in Myanmar. Failure to make strong statements connected to strong actions will do just that.”

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz said, “Secretary Tillerson’s visit must be used to recognize the tragedy for what it is, ethnic cleansing, and to pressure the Myanmar government and in particular Myanmar’s military to address the crimes against humanity that are taking place. This trip cannot become an endorsement of the current state of affairs in Myanmar. Failure to make strong statements connected to strong actions will do just that.”

Secretary Tillerson has already recognized the immense tragedy of the situation. One month ago, he stated, “We’re extraordinarily concerned by what is happening with the Rohingya in Burma…What’s most important is that the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area.”

What remains to be seen is whether, one month on, such statements will be followed with strong actions. Tillerson further stated, “If these reports are true, someone is going to be held to account for that.”

Numerous eye witness accounts collected by the United Nations and human rights groups, including Refugees International, and corroborated by satellite imagery have left little doubt that the reports are true. A recent U.S. State Department delegation reported hearing further accounts of villages burned, Rohingya seeing family members killed in front of them, or being shot as they fled.

The question now is whether those responsible will, indeed, be held to account.

To take full advantage of his visit, Secretary Tillerson should:

  • Reiterate U.S. calls for the Myanmar government to grant unhindered access throughout the country for humanitarians and the UN fact-finding mission tasked with investigating serious human rights abuses;

  • Press for safe returns of displaced Rohingya back to their homes in Myanmar;

  • Demand accountability for individuals involved in planning, aiding, or carrying out grave human rights abuses.

Failure of the government to take such steps should result in targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders and military owned enterprises. Further action should also be pushed with allies and with the UN Security Council including multilateral sanctions and an international arms embargo.

“U.S. engagement and pressure should not end with this visit.”

Finally, U.S. engagement and pressure should not end with this visit. Secretary Tillerson should further use his trip to Myanmar to announce the appointment of a Special Representative and Policy Coordinator, with the rank of ambassador, to continue and coordinate U.S. government policy and multilateral actions toward Myanmar.


More than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya people have fled their homes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State across the border to Bangladesh since late August 2017. The refugees have fled “clearance operations” by the Myanmar security forces and attacks by local Rakhine mobs following an attack on August 25, 2017 by a group of Rohingya militants against some 30 police posts and an army base. The response of the Myanmar security forces has been condemned as grossly disproportionate with the United Nations and numerous human rights groups reporting widespread and systematic burning of homes, shooting of fleeing Rohingya, and mass rapes in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Secretary of State Tillerson will visit Myanmar on November 15.

Refugees International traveled to Bangladesh in late September 2017 and released a report, “Bearing Witness to Crimes Against Humanity: The Forced Expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar”