In a March 21 speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said a State Department assessment and legal analysis has classified the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya as genocide and crimes against humanity.
The evaluation included detailed documentation from human rights organizations and the State Department’s “own rigorous fact-finding,” said Blinken, referring to a May 2021 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Ending Genocide—U.S. Government Genocide Determinations and Next Steps.”
Among the sources that Blinken said aided the State Department’s assessment is a November 2017 report jointly issued by the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the human rights organization Fortify Rights.
The report, “They Tried to Kill Us All,” was based on a survey of more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar.
The Rohingya comprise just 1 million of Myanmar’s 55 million people, and most of them live in Rakhine, a coastal state bordering the Bay of Bengal, where well over two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, according to a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.
The violence against Rohingyas began in 2016, Blinken said, citing the “They Tried to Kill Us All” report.
Atrocities continued and by 2017, more than 9,000 Rohingyas had been killed and more than 740,000 escaped to Bangladesh.
“Three-quarters of those interviewed said that they personally witnessed members of the military kill someone,” Blinken said. “More than half witnessed acts of sexual violence. One in five witnessed a mass-casualty event—that is, the killing or injuring of more than 100 people in a single incident.”
The evidence “points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities—the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part,” said Blinken referring to accounts of soldiers who committed the crimes but later defected. Blinken also quoted Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military in 2017, who referred to the Rohingya as a longstanding problem and that the “government in office is taking great care in solving it.”
“Intent is evident in the racial slurs shouted by members of the Burmese military as they attacked Rohingya, the widespread attack on mosques, the desecration of Korans,” Blinken said. The military’s genocidal objectives are clear from “the preparatory steps that soldiers took in the days leading up to the atrocities.”
In the village of Maung Nu, “soldiers started by confiscating Rohingya’s kitchen knives and machetes,” Blinken said. “Then they imposed a curfew. Then they tied pieces of red cloth outside the homes of Rohingya and at a local mosque. And then, only then, did the killing start.”
Blinken referred to the Holocaust Museum’s exhibition, “Burma’s Path to Genocide,” as an instructive lesson in how the groundwork for such monstrous crimes are “laid far in advance, over years, even decades, through a steady process of dehumanization and demonization.”
The Rohingya, an integral part of their nation for generations, “saw their rights, saw their citizenship methodically stripped away,” Blinken said. And that violence against the Rohingyas is the eighth instance of genocide since the Nazi Holocaust in which his own step-father perished.
American allies, including Canada, France and Turkey, have already accused Myanmar of genocide. In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, conducted public hearings in connection with allegations of genocide against Myanmar’s military regime.
The Gambia brought the ICJ case against Myanmar in 2019 on behalf of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The Gambia accused Myanmar’s military regime, which has since ousted the democratically elected government, of violating the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The ongoing ICJ case is not a criminal proceeding against individuals as perpetrators of genocide but seeks to make a legal determination of Myanmar’s alleged role in the crime. Further, the focus of the ICJ hearings in February, whose details have yet to be publicly released, was a challenge by Myanmar contending that the world court does not have the jurisdiction to hear allegations of genocide against the country’s military junta. At the same time, the junta appears to be using the case as an opportunity to portray itself as Myanmar’s legitimate government.
In October 2021, Congressman Gregory Meek of New York introduced legislation aimed at holding the Myanmar military accountable for genocide and other atrocities. The bill, Burma Act of 2021, seeks to “authorize humanitarian assistance and civil society support, promote democracy and human rights, and impose targeted sanctions with respect to human rights abuses in Burma...” The legislation has 78 co-sponsors.
“The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them,” Blinken said.
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