In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited Rwanda, where he formally apologizedfor the U.S. government’s inaction during the 1994 genocide there that claimed approximately 800,000 lives. He lamented that the international community “did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name.” Indeed, this was an omission of historic proportion, and the absence of outrage enabled policymakers to avoid considering bold measures that might have made a difference.
The U.S. government is now risking the same kind of failure in the case of Burma’s Rohingya minority. On Oct. 5, State Department testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee was strikingly reminiscent of the initial descriptions of the situation in Rwanda 23 years ago. Members of Congress tried in vain to persuade the department’s East Asia witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Patrick Murphy, to affirmatively declare that ethnic cleansing was taking place in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Instead, he described the situation as a “cauldron of complexities.” His remarks betrayed little sense of urgency.