When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first official trip to Myanmar on Wednesday, he did not describe the country’s brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as ethnic cleansing, as other diplomats have done.
Security forces have conducted or allowed what critics call systematic rape and murder against the Rohingya minority, leading more than half a million to flee to squalid camps in neighboring Bangladesh since August.
But speaking in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, Tillerson declined to call for sanctions or other censure, saying more investigation is needed.
“If we have credible information that we believe to be very reliable that certain individuals were responsible for certain acts that we find unacceptable,” Tillerson said, “then targeted sanctions on individuals very well may be appropriate.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have already documented atrocities against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country. In September, the United Nations’ top human rights official accused Myanmar of carrying out “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Whether Tillerson was ill-informed or following administration policy wasn’t clear. Unlike his recent predecessors, President Trump did not bring up human rights concerns during his just-completed visit to China, or during his subsequent visit to the Philippines, where the government is blamed for the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people.
But Tillerson’s soft-pedaling of the crisis fed growing concerns on Capitol Hill that he is leaving the State Department largely rudderless and that U.S. diplomacy is woefully absent in relations with Myanmar and areas it is needed — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian civil war.
The unease drew unusual rebukes this week from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who say U.S. diplomats, aid workers, academics and development specialists are retiring or quitting the State Department in alarming numbers. The exodus has weakened U.S. diplomacy and sent morale into a tailspin, the lawmakers say.
Tillerson is overseeing what he has called a major redesign of the State Department, including an 8% cut in the overall staff of about 70,000 Americans and non-Americans around the world. He has left numerous top-level posts unfilled, including the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific affairs. An acting secretary is doing the job for now.
“If this sort of high-level decapitation of leadership were going on at the Defense Department, I can guarantee you that the Congress would be up in arms,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Yet there is silence. Why?”
Speaking at a hearing to confirm new State Department nominees, he added, “We put our country in danger when we do not give adequate voice and resources to all our country’s national security tools.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the committee, echoed that concern. “The State Department, as you know, is not functioning particularly well, I hate to say,” he said. “They’re undermanned.”
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also complained, saying Tillerson was cutting too deeply.
“The failure to replace losses from the ranks of the Foreign Service due to attrition and resignations with promotions and the recruitment of new entry-level officers appears to be intended to reduce staffing levels,” they wrote in a letter to Tillerson.
In response, the State Department defended its redesign plans, which it said were aimed at streamlining the agency to “give our workforce more tools” to promote diplomatic goals.
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, also sought to push back on reports that the department was being gutted and was riddled with low morale.
In a news briefing Friday, she called the redesign “a work in progress.” She said that the number of senior foreign service officers was only slightly below the number at this time last year, but that Tillerson was still committed to shrinking the workforce.
“Sure, there is a morale issue,” she said. “I’d say to those people ... , ‘Hang in there. Don’t give up on this building. Don’t give up on what America is doing.’”
In Myanmar, human rights groups have been dismayed at the failure of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out on the plight of the Rohingya, especially now that she is state counselor, a position akin to prime minister.
“What people mean is what I say is not interesting enough,” she said of her critics during Tillerson’s visit. “What I say is not meant to be exciting. It’s meant to be accurate, not set people against each other.”
John Sifton, who is following the conflict in Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, said it was “naive” for Tillerson to call for another investigation.
“We are well past that stage in this crisis,” Sifton said. “Time and time again, the [Myanmar] government has shown itself to be unwilling and unable to acknowledge their own misdeeds.”
He urged the U.S. and other governments to “escalate” their interventions and impose tough sanctions on senior Myanmar officials.
Joanne Lin, a senior U.S. official for Amnesty International, said that Tillerson was correct to advocate for greater humanitarian access for the Rohingya refugees, but that he needed to do more.