(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. government has determined the attacks by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, constituted genocide and crimes against humanity, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday.
The legal determination comes nearly five years after the brutal violence killed approximately 9,000 Rohingya and drove nearly 1 million from the Southeast Asian country across the border into Bangladesh, fleeing murder, rape and arson.
Despite calls from Congress, human rights advocates, and other bodies to designate the atrocities a genocide, the State Department had held out. But now, with many of the same military leaders that were responsible for the genocide in power as part of a military coup last year, Blinken said recognizing the genocide was a key part of promoting accountability for its victims.
“The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them,” Blinken said firmly during remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The determination is only the eighth such one made by the State Department in the decades since the Holocaust, including in Bosnia and Rwanda, by ISIS and the Chinese government.
It doesn’t bring with it any automatic punishment. Instead, Blinken vowed to continue efforts toward accountability, including by announcing $1 million in new funding for the United Nations’ Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
U.N. investigators have already found that the military committed “genocidal acts,” but the IIMM is collecting evidence for potential future prosecutions of military commanders involved in atrocities, just as investigations continue at the International Criminal Court and elsewhere.
The U.N.’s top court, the International Court of Justice, also ruled in January 2020 that Myanmar must “take all measures within its power” to prevent the genocide of Rohingya after The Gambia, a small West African country, filed a lawsuit against Myanmar on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a coalition of countries with significant Muslim populations.
Still, activists and human rights groups say Blinken’s historic announcement could help spur action, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the military’s deadly campaign this August.
“Rohingya faced genocide, one of the most terrible crimes imaginable, and then faced the international community not even acknowledging it had happened. Today, the U.S. has gone a long way to correcting that,” said Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist.
But Myanmar, still called by its former name, Burma, by the U.S. government, is now led by the military commanders who oversaw and orchestrated the genocide, including Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the leader who deposed Myanmar’s democratically-elected government and its civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has denied it has committed a genocide, instead calling it a military operation against Islamist extremists. It has rejected the ICJ’s findings and refused to cooperate with the ICC probe.
The Trump administration stopped short of designating the atrocities a genocide, in part because of concerns that pushing Myanmar’s government too strongly would cause a military coup that collapsed the power-sharing civilian-military government. But critics have argued the impunity the military largely faced laid the groundwork for its February 2021 coup, just days after President Joe Biden took office.
Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called the attacks “ethnic cleansing” and his successor, Mike Pompeo, quietly released a State Department report documenting the atrocities, but declined to speak to its significance.
But that report was one “key” basis for Blinken’s determination, he said Monday. When he took office, he said the department would conduct a new review of the evidence and make a determination.
Conducted in 2018, the State Department report documented through interviews with victims of grisly crimes that approximately three-quarters personally witnessed a killing, a majority witnessed sexual violenceand one-fifth witnessed a “mass casualty event” in which more than 100 people were killed or injured.
Blinken didn’t just cite those statistics Monday, he also read the firsthand accounts of some victims, including those documented by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibit, “Burma’s Path to Genocide,” which he toured before his remarks.
“It’s painful to even read these accounts, and I ask you — I ask each and every one of you listening — put yourself in their place. … These stories force us to reckon with the immeasurable pain wrought by every heinous abuse. That pain ripples outward — from the individual victims and survivors to loved ones, to friends, to entire communities,” he said — adding a reference to his stepfather Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and renowned author, who he said “carried” that pain “for the rest of his life.”
But despite that pain, Myanmar’s military leaders have suffered few consequences for their bloody actions — not just the genocide, but last year’s coup — according to some activists. Successive rounds of U.S., European Union, British and Canadian sanctions, including on key economic sectors and military-owned enterprises, have not changed their course, especially amid continued support from Russia and China.
“Stronger actions must be followed to punish perpetrators, to protect remaining Rohingya in Myanmar, rebuild our lives,” Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya activist, tweeted Monday.
Since the coup, the military has widened its attacks on civilians across the country and on other ethnic minority groups, while the same systems of persecution and violence that repressively targeted Rohingya for decades and presaged the genocide remain in place.
“We urge the administration, and the international community, to continue to do more to hold the military junta accountable, redouble efforts to restore democracy and bring about a genuine national reconciliation to Burma,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and James Risch, R-Idaho, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But that kind of reconciliation seems increasingly out of reach. Over a year after the coup, the armed forces have killed more than 1,600 people and detained thousands more. An opposition “National Unity Government” has received some backing from the U.S., but the country is heading toward a protracted civil war with increasingly dangerous implications for Myanmar and the region, according to some analysts.
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