US declares Myanmar action against Rohingya as genocide
The Biden administration has officially determined that the violence committed against the Rohingya minority by the Myanmar military amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity, US officials have told Reuters, a decision which advocates say should strengthen efforts to hold the junta that now rules Myanmar accountable.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will announce the decision Monday at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, US officials said, which is currently displaying an exhibit on the plight of the Rohingya. It comes nearly 14 months after he took office and pledged to lead a new review of violence.
Myanmar’s armed forces launched a military operation in 2017 that forced at least 730,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya from their homes and into neighboring Bangladesh, where they have recounted killings, mass rapes and arson attacks. . In 2021, the Burmese military seized power in a coup.
US officials and an outside law firm gathered evidence in an effort to quickly acknowledge the gravity of the atrocities, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to make a decision.
Blinken ordered his own “legal and factual analysis”, the US officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The analysis concluded that Myanmar’s military was committing genocide and Washington believes the formal determination will increase international pressure to hold the junta accountable.
“It will be harder for them to commit further abuses,” a senior State Department official said.
Myanmar embassy officials in Washington and a junta spokesperson did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Sunday.
Myanmar’s military has denied committing genocide against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar, and said it was carrying out an operation against terrorists in 2017. (Read Reuters’ 2018 deportation series Rohingya https://www.Reuters.com/investigates/section/myanmar-rohingya/)
A UN fact-finding mission concluded in 2018 that the army’s campaign included “acts of genocide”, but Washington at the time called the atrocities “ethnic cleansing”, a term that has not been accepted. no legal definition under international criminal law.
“This really shows the world and especially the victims and survivors within the Rohingya community and more broadly that the United States recognizes the seriousness of what is happening,” a second senior State Department official said Monday. about Blinken’s announcement.
A determination of genocide does not automatically trigger punitive action by the United States.
Since the Cold War, the State Department has officially used the term six times to describe massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur, Islamic State attacks on Yazidis and other minorities, and most recently last year, China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims. China denies genocide allegations.
Blinken will also announce additional funding of $1 million for the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), a Geneva-based United Nations body that collects evidence for possible future prosecutions.
“This will strengthen our position as we try to build international support to try to prevent further atrocities and hold those responsible,” the first US official said.
US Senator Jeff Merkley, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who led a congressional delegation to Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, welcomed the move.
“While this determination is long overdue, it is nonetheless a powerful and critically important step in holding this brutal regime to account,” Merkley said in a statement.
FOCUS ON THE MILITARY
Days after US 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 the November 2020 general election. won by the party of champion of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi. 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 arresting nearly 10,000, including civilian leaders such as Suu Kyi, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP). , a campaign group, and sparking an insurrection.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the AAPP figures. The junta said the group’s figures were exaggerated and that members of the security forces had also been killed in clashes with opponents of the coup. The junta did not provide its own figures.
In response to the coup, the United States and its Western allies sanctioned the junta and its business interests, but were unable to convince the generals to restore civilian rule after receiving military and diplomatic support. of Russia and China.
Blinken’s acknowledgment of genocide and crimes against humanity primarily refers to events in 2017, before last year’s coup. The step comes after two State Department reviews — one initiated in 2018 and the other in 2020 — failed to reach a decision.
Some former US officials told Reuters they were missed opportunities to send a strong message to the Myanmar generals who later took power.
Activists believe a clear US statement that genocide has been committed could bolster efforts to hold the generals accountable, such as a case at the International Court of Justice where The Gambia accused Myanmar of genocide, citing Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State. .
Myanmar rejected the genocide charge and urged the court judges to drop the case. The junta said Gambia was acting as a proxy for others and had no legal standing to press charges.
The International Criminal Court (ICC), a separate court in The Hague, is also investigating the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar, and the IIMM in Geneva is gathering evidence that could be used in future trials.
Myanmar opposes investigations and has refused to cooperate, saying the ICC lacks jurisdiction and that its decision to launch an investigation was influenced by “stories laden with heartbreaking personal tragedies that have nothing to do with the legal arguments in question”.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said Myanmar’s military has faced “few real consequences for its atrocities, whether against the Rohingya or other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar”.
In addition to imposing more economic sanctions on the junta, the United States should push for a UN Security Council resolution that would refer all alleged crimes by the military to the International Criminal Court, Sifton said. . If Russia and China veto a resolution, as is likely, Washington should take action in the UN General Assembly, he said.
“Myanmar’s condemnations must be accompanied by concrete actions,” he said.
Before Blinken made the decision this month, officials debated whether blaming Myanmar’s government — rather than specifically its military — for the atrocities might complicate US support for the country’s fallen democratic forces, according to a source close to the government. case.
The State Department chose to put the blame on the military, the second senior department official said.
“It is unclear to what extent the civilian leadership had control over the actions that were taking place in Rakhine State and so that is where the determination stops at this stage,” said the official, who did not comment on the internal deliberation.
Suu Kyi, forced to share power with the generals, went to the International Court of Justice in 2019 to dismiss Gambia’s genocide charges.
She said the country would prosecute any soldier found guilty of abuse itself, but argued that the alleged violations did not rise to the level of genocide, for which specific intent to destroy a group must be proven.
When they took power, the generals put Suu Kyi on trial in nearly a dozen cases that could see her sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. She remains in detention.