THE COVER of the State Department’s latest report on violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar says it provides “Documentation.” There is ample documentation, through the experience of 1,024 refugees now in Bangladesh, and satellite imagery, of how the Rohingya were subject to brutal attacks last year by the security forces of Myanmar, also known as Burma. The report says it was “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya” from Myanmar. But then the report just stops, as if the United States lost its voice.
The Myanmar army’s scorched-earth campaign against the long-persecuted Rohingya in northern Rakhine state is increasingly well documented, despite the government’s refusal to allow unfettered access to journalists and international observers. Nongovernmental organizations and a United Nations international fact-finding mission have shown that after a militant Rohingya group attacked about 30 police and security posts, a harsh crackdown by Myanmar army and other units started on Aug. 25, 2017. Rohingya were explicitly targeted, the State Department notes; homes and property were destroyed, and “scores of Rohingya were killed as they fled their villages.” There was clearly premeditation. “In one case, the local heads of the military and police called together 25 Muslim leaders from the surrounding villages to tell them to leave or they would be killed or burned.” All told, about 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are now forsaken in makeshift camps.
The government of Myanmar, whose de facto head, Aung San Suu Kyi, was once a revered icon of the struggle against the country’s military dictatorship, has failed to hold to account military leaders who carried out the onslaught. The U.N. fact-finding mission said those responsible should be “investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Nov. 22, 2017, that “it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Aug. 25 called it “abhorrent ethnic cleansing.” The United States has imposed sanctions on some individual military leaders and other entities for their role in the attacks.
The State Department report was an opportunity to say and do more. At the very least, the United States should have labeled the atrocities a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Fortify Rights and the U.N. investigators have all used the term and suggested there was preparation for such crimes. Some have gone further; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said at a hearing Wednesday “it is clear that these crimes amount to genocide,” while Rep. Elliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said it is “clearly a crime against humanity and likely also genocide.”
It’s unfortunate the administration could not speak with comparable clarity. It should propose a legal process for accountability. And it should not fear to speak the truth about this atrocity.