U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced Monday that the U.S. government has condemned Myanmar’s military offensive against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, as genocide and a crime against humanity.
The legal decision comes nearly five years after nearly 9,000 Rohingya were killed in brutal violence and nearly five years after the border was relocated to Southeast Asian countries, fleeing killings, rapes and arson.
Despite calls from Congress, human rights lawyers and other organizations to identify the atrocities as genocide, the State Department has pulled out. But now, with many of the same military leaders in power responsible for the genocide as part of a military coup last year, Blinken says recognizing the genocide is a key part of promoting accountability for its victims.
“The day will come when those responsible for this horrific act will have to answer for it,” Blinken asserted while commenting at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
This is only the eighth such resolution by the State Department in decades since the Holocaust by ISIS and the Chinese government, including Bosnia and Rwanda.
It does not bring any automatic punishment. Instead, Blinken pledged to continue its efforts toward accountability, including announcing $ 1 million in new funding for the UN’s independent investigation into Myanmar.
UN investigators have already found that the military has committed “genocidal acts”, but the IIMM is gathering evidence for a possible future trial of military commanders involved in the atrocities, just as investigations continue at the International Criminal Court and elsewhere.
The International Court of Justice, the apex court of the United Nations, also ruled in January 2020 that Myanmar must “do everything in its power” to prevent the Rohingya genocide after Gambia, a small West African country, sued Myanmar. Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an alliance of countries with significant Muslim populations.
Nonetheless, activists and human rights groups say the historic announcement, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the military’s deadly campaign this August, could help encourage the move.
“The Rohingya faced genocide, one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, and then the international community did not even acknowledge that it happened. Today, the United States has come a long way in correcting this,” said Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist.
But Myanmar, still called Burma by the US government in its former name, is now led by military commanders who oversaw and organized the genocide, including General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government and its civilians. Leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has denied committing genocide, instead calling it a military operation against Islamist extremists. It rejected the ICJ’s findings and refused to co-operate in the ICC investigation.
The Trump administration has refrained from identifying atrocities as genocide because of concerns that too much pressure on the Myanmar government could lead to a military coup that would topple the power-sharing civilian-military government. But critics have argued that the impeachment of the military mainly laid the groundwork for his February 2021 coup, just days after President Joe Biden took office.
Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called the attacks “ethnic cleansing,” and his successor, Mike Pompeo, quietly released a State Department report documenting the atrocities, but declined to comment on their significance.
But that report was a “core” basis for Blinken’s intentions, he said Monday. When he took office, he said the department would conduct a new review of the evidence and make a resolution.
Conducted in 2018, the State Department report recorded through interviews with victims of horrific crimes that nearly three-quarters personally witnessed a homicide, most witnessed sexual violence, and one-fifth witnessed a “genocide” in which more than 100 people were killed or injured.
Blinken not only quoted Monday’s figures, but also read live details of some of the victims, including those recorded by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibit, “Burma’s Path to Genocide,” which he visited before his remarks.
“Even reading these accounts is painful, and I ask you – I listen to each of you – put yourself in their place. That pain spreads outwardly – from personal prey and survival to loved ones, to friends, to the whole community, He said – adding that his honest father, Samuel Pissar, a survivor of the Holocaust and a reference to the famous author, who he said “carried” that pain “for a lifetime.”
But despite that suffering, Myanmar’s military leaders have suffered some consequences for their bloody actions – not just the genocide, but last year’s coup – according to some activists. The United States, the European Union, the successive clauses of British and Canadian sanctions, including major economic sectors and military-owned enterprises, have not changed their course, especially in the face of continued support from Russia and China.
“To protect the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar, we must take drastic measures to punish the perpetrators in order to rebuild our lives,” a Rohingya activist named YY Nu tweeted on Monday.
Since the coup, the military has stepped up attacks on civilians and other ethnic minority groups across the country, while the same system of repression and violence that for decades repressed the Rohingya and predicted genocide.
“We call on the administration and the international community to hold the military junta accountable, to redouble its efforts to restore democracy and to do more to bring about a truly national reconciliation in Burma,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., and James Reich, R. -Idaho, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking member.
But that kind of reunion seems to be getting out of hand. In the more than a year since the coup, the armed forces have killed more than 1,600 people and detained thousands more. An opposition “national unity government” has received some support from the United States, but some analysts say the country is heading for a protracted civil war with increasingly dangerous implications for Myanmar and the region.