Myanmar Genocide Designation Tests Biden

After the coup in Myanmar, President Biden is being pushed to do what the Trump administration would not: Declare atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017 as genocide.

Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar in 2017. Some American allies have already declared the monthslong rampage against the Rohingya as genocide.Credit...Adam Dean for The New York Times

Three years ago, American investigators produced a 15,000-page analysis of atrocities committed in 2017 against the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority group in Myanmar. The report documented survivors’ accounts of gang rapes, crucifixions, mutilations, of children being burned or drowned and of families locked inside their blazing homes as Myanmar’s military sought to exterminate them.

That was not enough to convince the State Department during the Trump administration that the United States should officially proclaim the Rohingya to be victims of genocide and crimes against humanity.

But now that the military, the Tatmadaw, has overthrown Myanmar’s civilian government, current and former American officials and human rights activists are demanding that President Biden do what the Trump administration would not: Formally hold the country’s military accountable for genocide and compel international protection of the Rohingya.

“The same military leaders who orchestrated atrocities against the Rohingya have seized power in a violent coup against the elected government,” Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, told Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at a Senate hearing in early June.

Mr. Markey asked when the State Department would decide whether the atrocities amounted to genocide, and though Mr. Blinken described a “very much actively ongoing” review, he would not predict when it might be resolved. He said the State Department was working with the United Nations “to try to collect and preserve evidence that will be very important” to conclude if genocide was committed.

Some American allies — including Canada, France and Turkey — have already declared the monthslong rampage in 2017 against the Rohingya as genocide. The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation filed legal action against Myanmar in 2019, accusing it of violating the U.N.’s Genocide Convention.

Mr. Biden has made fostering democracy and protecting human rights pillars of his foreign policy, and in April went so far as to declare century-old atrocities committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

But he has stopped short of a genocide designation on behalf of the Rohingya because of a continuing internal debate that has left the administration torn over what impact it would have and how forcefully the United States should be engaged in the protracted conflict between the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s citizens, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

Diplomats who work on human rights issues have pushed for a genocide declaration. But State Department officials who oversee East Asia policy fear that it could turn other Burmese against the United States for appearing to favor the Rohingya — who are widely reviled in Myanmar and have been denied basic rights by their own government — over people who are now also being brutalized by the military.

“What is the catalyst that’s needed right now for people to focus on Burma as this continues?” said Anurima Bhargava, the past chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan panel that makes policy recommendations to the federal government. She cited “deepening atrocities” that are threatening hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s people — including the Rohingya — by the Tatmadaw. “That would make a genocide determination easier right now, given who’s in power and, certainly in some ways, be a way in which to highlight what it is that this particular military has done over the course of many years,” Ms. Bhargava said.

The Biden administration was quick to declare the military’s takeover of Myanmar’s government in February as a coup, and in May committed to sending $155 million in aid to Rohingya refugees in what Mr. Blinken described as a continuing effort to promote “peace, security and respect for the human rights and human dignity of all people in Burma, including Rohingya.”

The 2018 report detailing the attacks against the Rohingya left little doubt to investigators hired by the State Department that the Tatmadaw had committed genocide and crimes against humanity.

It was based on evidence compiled by investigators and lawyers with the Public International Law & Policy Group, which the State Department hired in early 2018 to assess the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State in 2017. After interviewing more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled to camps in neighboring Bangladesh, the team documented more than 13,000 grave human rights violations, in findings that Daniel Fullerton, who managed the investigation, described as “staggering.”

The final analysis that Mr. Fullerton wrote and submitted to the State Department in July 2018 amounted to what he called the most expansive investigation into the crimes against the Rohingya.

Two months later, the State Department quietly released its final report, drawing on the evidence that Mr. Fullerton’s team had compiled. It detailed the planned and coordinated nature of widespread violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, resulting in mass casualties, including against religious leaders who had been singled out.

But it conspicuously did not conclude that Myanmar’s military had committed genocide or crimes against humanity.

At a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom hearing on genocide in May, Mr. Fullerton said the evidence his team gave the State Department provided “reasonable grounds to believe there was an intent to destroy the Rohingya.”