Myanmar’s military carried out actions that amount to genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslims, the Biden administration said on Monday, taking a long-delayed step to highlight what U.S. officials say was a premeditated attempt to wipe out a vulnerable minority.
In 2016 and 2017, “the attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “The evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities — the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part, through killings, rape and torture.”
Blinken said the State Department’s analysis was based in part on interviews with Rohingya who fled to neighboring Bangladesh, many of whom reported having witnessed members of Myanmar’s military kill or rape people. A fifth of those interviewed said they witnessed an attack in which more than 100 people were killed or injured. Some soldiers who took part in the attacks later provided accounts of what occurred to investigators, Blinken said.
Monday’s announcement caps an extended period of consideration of such a move. In 2018, the State Department mulled denouncing Myanmar, also known as Burma, for “crimes against humanity,” after a rigorous report found a pattern of planning and premeditation ahead of the military’s August 2017 scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya.
Key State Department bureaus had signed off on the “crimes against humanity” designation, which could have then led to further action including at the International Criminal Court. But the U.S. government never made such a declaration, an omission that human rights advocates viewed as a missed opportunity to hold the military junta responsible for grave atrocities under international law.
Then, in the waning days of the Trump administration, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on a designation determining that China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority amounted to genocide, leaving advocates of the Rohingya feeling like the minority group’s plight had been sidelined once the issue was out of the media spotlight.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Myanmar, came under widespread international criticism for not challenging the campaign against the Rohingya by the increasingly powerful military.
After the 2021 coup, the military detained Suu Kyi and her key advisers and ministers, most of whom remain in jail facing sentences of up to life in prison. Western nations including the United States have struggled to hold Myanmar’s military to account or change the trajectory of the country. Grave human rights abuses — the kind inflicted on the Rohingya — have expanded to other communities and ethnic groups across Myanmar, as the military seeks to consolidate power and snuff out opposition to its rule, including from armed rebel groups.
In his remarks, Blinken said the military since the coup had killed more than 1,600 people, and subjected many more to abuse and sexual violence in detention. He cited a December 2021 attack that killed at least 35 people, including women, children and two aid workers.
Monday’s declaration comes as the Biden administration attempts to keep paying attention to Asia, especially the countries in China’s backyard, even as the war in Ukraine remains a priority. It could help bolster an ongoing genocide case against the Myanmar military at the International Court of Justice.
Brought by The Gambia, that case would be only the third genocide case the court has ever heard. ICJ judges will rule on whether the case can go ahead after hearing preliminary arguments from both sides. But that process could take months.
Blinken said the United States will seek to help the accountability effort by sharing information with The Gambia. He also announced that Washington will provide “nearly a million dollars in additional funding” to an independent investigative effort related to atrocities documentation.
Blinken, whose stepfather was sent to a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, said he takes the responsibility of declaring genocide “very seriously” given his family history. During his visit to the museum, he toured an exhibit called Burma’s Path to Genocide.
He said the U.S. determination was based on “documentation by a range of independent, impartial sources, as well as our own rigorous fact-finding.” It also derived from a factual assessment and legal analysis prepared by the State Department, he said.
Looking forward, Blinken underscored that the genocide finding is “fundamental to understanding Burma’s current crisis.”
“Many of the military leaders who led the genocidal campaign against Rohingya in 2016 and 2017, including the general who led it, were also involved in abuses committed against other ethnic and religious minority groups,” he said. “They’re the same ones who overthrew Burma’s democratically elected government on February 1, 2021, and seized power.”
Blinken singled out Min Aung Hlaing, who headed the military in 2016 and 2017 and has headed the government since the coup. The commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed services had been under U.S. sanctions for his role in the atrocities.
“Since the coup, we have seen the Burmese military use many of the same tactics,” Blinken noted. “Only now the military is targeting anyone in Burma it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule.”
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.