Nearly five years after they were raped, beaten, murdered and forced to flee their burning villages, the United States has officially declared that the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar were victims of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The announcement, delivered Monday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, may help the Rohingya build an international legal case against Myanmar’s military. It comes after years of demands by the Rohingya as well as human rights activists, scholars and lawmakers that the U.S. executive branch recognize the severity of the 2017 atrocities. It further comes as Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in an ongoing crisis spurred by a military coup in February 2021.
Blinken unveiled the determination at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the entities that had long urged the State Department to make the call. He specifically blamed the military, not Myanmar’s now-ousted civilian government, for the abuses. And he laid out example after example of the atrocities the Rohingya faced in the crackdown that began in August 2017, from children being stomped upon by soldiers to some of the troops revealing that they were told to shoot Rohingya on sight.
He said the evidence was abundant that the Myanmar military intended to destroy the Rohingya “in whole or in part,” meeting one element of the definition of genocide.
“It’s critically important to reach the determination of genocide, but at the same time, we must remember that behind each of these numbers are countless individual acts of cruelty, and inhumanity,” Blinken said. “The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them.”
Human rights advocates and former U.S. officials offered back-handed praise for Blinken’s decision.
“This determination is long overdue,” said Kelley Currie, a long-time Myanmar specialist who served as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues during the Trump administration. “It should have been made years ago, and any political or policy justification for not doing it vanished with the military’s coup.”
Currie and others urged the Biden administration to impose more punishments on the Myanmar military for the atrocities it has committed since the coup. According to Human Rights Watch, Myanmar security forces have killed some 1,600 people, detained more than 12,000 and displaced more than 500,000 in crackdowns as the population has resisted the return to military rule. The post-coup operations have often targeted ethnic groups beyond the Rohingya who, too, have long struggled.
“The Myanmar military will continue to commit atrocities so long as other governments fail to impose measures to hold them accountable,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
As word spread of Blinken’s decision, the International Campaign for the Rohingya declared on Twitter: “This is huge. It should set the stage for further US sanctions on the #Myanmar military, including action to block oil and gas money flows to the junta.”
Efforts to reach officials at the Myanmar embassy in Washington were not immediately successful. In the past, Myanmar officials have insisted the 2017 operation was legitimate.
Blinken spent significant time in his speech discussing the coup and its aftermath, saying at one point, “There is no one the Burmese military won’t come for.”
The Rohingya have suffered long-standing oppression in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, and were stripped of their citizenship in the 1980s. For decades, the country was ruled by its military, but a partial transition to civilian rule over the past 15 years — encouraged heavily by Washington — did not, as some had hoped, lead to better conditions for the Rohingya. In fact, their lives got worse.
In his speech Monday, Blinken laid out much of the history of Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya, noting that genocides are not necessarily sudden events but ongoing processes.
The 2017 military crackdown, ostensibly a response to an attack by Rohingya militants, was exceptionally severe. Thousands of Rohingya were killed and some 700,000 fled into neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in camps.
The U.S. government, led by President Donald Trump, responded to the crisis by imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s military, sending humanitarian aid, and taking other steps to aid the Rohingya. For geopolitical and other reasons, however, the administration held off on formally recognizing the Rohingya as victims of genocide and crimes against humanity. Instead, it stuck with the term “ethnic cleansing,” which, unlike genocide and crimes and humanity, has little meaning in international law.
One reason the Trump administration held off on the declaration was to avoid weakening Myanmar’s fragile civilian government, led by famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which had no serious control over the military. In a sign of the perilous politics surrounding the Rohingya issue, Suu Kyi did not defend the embattled Muslim group’s cause, tarnishing her global image.
The Trump administration also worried that accusing Myanmar of genocide would lead it to further turn toward China as a partner, despite the Myanmar military’s wary relations with Beijing. (There also were reports that then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was upset about leaks to WEBICNEWS about the State Department’s investigation into what happened to the Rohingya.)
Prior to leaving office, Pompeo declared that the Chinese government was carrying out a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, but he said nothing about the Rohingya. That fueled bipartisan frustration in Congress and elsewhere about logical inconsistencies in the State Department’s deliberations on atrocities.
The frustration grew over the past year with President Joe Biden in charge. Biden had declared during his presidential campaign that the Uyghurs were genocide victims. That move appeared to be campaign maneuver to make Biden look tough on Beijing, which he and Trump had identified as a top U.S. foe.
But Biden and his aides held off on making the same declaration for the Rohingya, both during the campaign and his first year in office. Again, China played a role, with the Biden team wary of not strengthening China’s hand in Myanmar. But the Myanmar military’s ouster of the civilian government just days into Biden’s tenure also confused the issue.
Before the coup, some State Department officials argued that accusing Myanmar of genocide could lead to a military coup that ended the country’s democratic experiment. After the coup, some U.S. diplomats warned that accusing the country of genocide could make it harder to convince the military to restore democracy. (The U.S. imposed sanctions on Myanmar related to the coup itself.)
The logical contortions over the question of genocide exasperated U.S. lawmakers and others, even though the American government has a long history of being inconsistent and late on recognizing that crime.
“Such processes must always be carried out objectively, consistently, and in a way that transcends geopolitical considerations,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who nonetheless praised the Biden administration this week for having “demonstrated that it is on the right side of history and stands with the people of Burma.”
Over the months, however, even officials in the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific bureau, where there had been significant resistance to a genocide declaration, came around, according to a Biden administration official.
Ultimately, the decision to declare a genocide is the prerogative of the secretary of State, the official noted. But the East Asia bureau, as well as the department’s divisions that focus on human rights and global criminal justice co-authored the memo that Blinken signed, the official said.
“The important thing is it’s happening,” the official said. “But I agree, human rights consistency and credibility is important.”