Violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday, a declaration intended to both generate international pressure and lay the groundwork for potential legal action.
Authorities made the determination based on confirmed accounts of mass atrocities on civilians by Myanmar's military in a widespread and systematic campaign against the ethnic minority, Blinken said in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It is the eighth time since the Holocaust that the U.S. has concluded a genocide has occurred. The secretary of state noted the importance of calling attention to inhumanity even as horrific attacks occur elsewhere in the world, including Ukraine.
“Yes, we stand with the people of Ukraine," he said. "And we must also stand with people who are suffering atrocities in other places.”
The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is already under multiple layers of U.S. sanctions since a military coup ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021. Thousands of civilians throughout the country have been killed and imprisoned as part of ongoing repression of anyone opposed to the ruling junta.
The determination that a genocide has occurred could lead other nations to increase pressure on the government, which is already facing accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“As we lay the foundation for future accountability, we're also working to stop the military's ongoing atrocities, and support the people of Burma as they strive to put the country back on the path to democracy,” Blinken said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Blinken's announcement “emphasizes, especially to victims and survivors, that the United States recognizes the gravity of these crimes.”
“Our view is that shining a light on the crimes of Burma's military will increase international pressure, make it harder for them to commit further abuses,” she said.
Rohingya, from Muslim Myanmar's western Rakhine state, faced systematic persecution at the hands of the Buddhist majority for decades under both the military junta that ruled the nation for decades as well as the democratically-elected government.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military launched an operation aimed at clearing them from the country following attacks by a rebel group.
The status of the plight of the Rohingya had been under extended review by U.S. government legal experts since the Trump administration, given potential legal ramifications of such a finding. The delay in the determination had drawn criticism from both inside and outside the government.
“While this determination is long overdue, it is nevertheless a powerful and critically important step in holding this brutal regime to account,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Human rights groups also welcomed the determination, which is similar to findings already made by other countries, including Canada, France and Turkey.
“The U.S. determination of the crime of genocide against us is a momentous moment and must lead to concrete action to hold the Burmese military accountable for their crimes,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
Human Rights Watch said the U.S. and other governments should seek justice for crimes carried out by the military and impose stronger sanctions against its leadership.
“The U.S. government should couple its condemnations of Myanmar's military with action,” said John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director. “For too long, the U.S. and other countries have allowed Myanmar's generals to commit atrocities with few real consequences.”
A 2018 State Department report documented instances of Myanmar's military razing villages and carrying out rapes, tortures and mass killings of civilians since at least 2016. Blinken said evidence showed the violence wasn't isolated, but part of a systematic program that amounts to crimes against humanity.
“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,” he said.
Previous determinations of genocide by the U.S. include campaigns against Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities in China as well as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur.