We should be concerned by a new agreement to repatriate 1,500 Rohingya refugees in a week — and all 740,000 refugees within two years — from Bangladesh back to Myanmar.
Do not misunderstand me, my contention here is not that the Rohingya should never return home, but rather that they should return home only when the Myanmar government ensures they will be treated with respect. And respect cannot be considered to include widespread rape, murder and mayhem.
Considering the evidence of continuing atrocities being committed against Rohingya civilians, any near-term repatriation would be very dangerous. Indeed, it was only in December that the U.S. introduced sanctions on top Myanmar officials for their role in continuing abuses against the Rohingya people.
Nevertheless, the U.S. can influence Bangladesh and Myanmar in a more positive direction: one that lays the foundation for a long-term resolution to the crisis.
First, President Trump should order the U.S. Agency for International Development to commit increased funds to the Bangladeshi government and aid groups that are working to provide basic shelter and support for the refugees. Bangladesh is an exceptionally poor nation that is doing extraordinary work without sufficient support. Alongside these funds, Trump should tweet about Bangladesh's hard work in the cause of basic human rights: such action will be well received in Dhaka. It would also strike a positive contrast with the necessarily tough approach Trump and Mattis are applying to Pakistan.
Second, Trump should pick up the phone to the two top leaders of Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. He should warn that the U.S. expects and demands that they restrain the armed forces and militia groups from violent attacks on the Rohingya and punish those responsible for previous atrocities. If they fail to cooperate, Trump should warn, he will implement wide-ranging sanctions on the regime. Trump should also pledge to use the U.S. bullhorn to encourage partners in Europe and the Asia-Pacific to join any sanctions.
Third, utilizing his close relationship with the Saudi, Kuwaiti and United Arab Emirates governments, Trump should press those nations to fund a United Nations peacekeeping force for Myanmar. At the security council, Trump should simultaneously direct Nikki Haley to push for a peacekeeping authorization if Myanmar cannot offer credible guarantees on the Rohingya.
Regardless, as Trump faces criticism for his recent rhetoric, this situation offers a unique opportunity to apply soft power in the pursuit of a noble cause.