The United States formally determined that Myanmar’s army committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its violence against the Rohingya minority, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday, warning that as long as the junta was in power nobody in the country would be safe.
Announcing the decision, Blinken said the attacks against Rohingya were “widespread and systematic” and that evidence pointed to a clear intent to destroy the mainly Muslim minority.
A clear statement by the United States saying genocide was committed could bolster efforts to hold the Myanmar generals accountable and help prevent further atrocities, activists and U.S. officials believe.
In his speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the top American diplomat read out tragic and chilling accounts of victims, who had been shot in the head, raped and tortured.
Myanmar’s armed forces launched a military operation in 2017 that forced at least 730,000 of the mainly Muslim Rohingya from their homes and into neighboring Bangladesh, where they recounted killings, mass rape and arson. In 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup.
“Since the coup, we have seen the Burmese military use many of the same tactics. Only now the military is targeting anyone in Burma it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule,” Blinken said.
“For those who did not realize it before the coup, the brutal violence unleashed by the military since February 2021 has made clear that no one in Burma will be safe from atrocities so long as it is in power,” he added.
Days after U.S. President Joe Biden took office, Myanmar generals led by Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1, 2021, after complaining of fraud in a November 2020 general election won by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Election monitoring groups found no evidence of mass fraud.
The armed forces crushed an uprising against their coup, killing more than 1,600 people and detaining nearly 10,000, including civilian leaders such as Suu Kyi, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group, and setting off an insurgency.
In response to the coup, the United States and Western allies sanctioned the junta and its business interests, but have been unable to persuade the generals to restore civilian rule after they received military and diplomatic support from Russia and China.
Advocates say Monday’s declaration, which does not automatically unleash any punitive measures but carries political weight, could help judicial efforts worldwide to hold the junta accountable, but say more action needs to follow.
“The U.S. government should couple its condemnations of Myanmar’s military with action,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “For too long, the U.S. and other countries have allowed Myanmar’s generals to commit atrocities with few real consequences.”
Blinken said the United States has shared information with Gambia connected to its case at the International Court of Justice, where it has accused Myanmar of genocide.
Blinken’s recognition of genocide and crimes against humanity refers mainly to events in 2017, before last year’s coup. The step comes after two State Department examinations — one initiated in 2018 and the other in 2020 — failed to produce a determination.
Some former U.S. officials said those were missed opportunities to send a firm message to the Myanmar generals who later seized power.