Rohingya refugees, fleeing from Taung Bazar, Myanmar, crossing the border into Bangladesh in 2017.Credit...Adam Dean for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of a war in Ukraine and atrocities in Ethiopia, the United States on Monday formally accused Myanmar of committing genocide against its minority Rohingya population.
“The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which is exhibiting evidence of decades of discrimination and abuse against Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military.
The violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State peaked in August 2017 with a campaign of mass rape, burnings and drownings against entire families that killed more than 9,000 people and forced nearly one million to flee the country.
It was the eighth time that the United States has issued a formal genocide declaration, committing to supporting international investigations to hold violators accountable and probably prompting additional sanctions or other penalties to isolate Myanmar’s military-led government.
Messages left at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington on Monday were not immediately answered. Officials who “bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities” will continue to face severe sanctions, Mr. Blinken said.
He did not mention any penalties against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who was Myanmar’s de facto leader at the time of the 2017 massacres and had rejected accusations of genocide. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested in a February 2021 coup. Since then, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has violently cracked down on civilians across the country, killing at least 1,670 people and detaining more than 12,000.
The designation bolsters international charges of genocide that have been brought against the leaders who ordered the atrocities against the Rohingya, some of whom Mr. Blinken said remain in power in Myanmar.
Canada, France, Turkey and other American allies have already declared the 2017 rampage to be genocide. Gambia, acting on behalf of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, filed legal action against Myanmar in 2019 at the International Court of Justice, accusing Myanmar of violating the United Nations’ Genocide Convention.
Monday’s declaration “adds another layer to the already quite damning accusations against Myanmar for atrocities committed against the Rohingya,” said Oumar Ba, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University and an expert on the international criminal justice system.
Noting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s possible culpability, Mr. Ba added, “We should, however, be careful not to attribute these crimes solely to the Myanmar’s military junta.”
Mr. Blinken said the Biden administration would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees, the majority of whom have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, and would send $1 million to a U.N. fact-finding mission that is gathering evidence on Myanmar’s worst cases of atrocities since 2011.
American investigators conducted their own inquiry into the violence, interviewing more than 1,000 refugees who reported widespread and systematic attacks. More than half of the Rohingya interviewed witnessed sexual assaults, and three-quarters said they saw killings at the hands of the military. One of every five Rohingya interviewed witnessed a mass casualty event, where more than 100 people were killed or injured, Mr. Blinken said, citing the report.
“The evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities — the intent to destroy Rohingya,” Mr. Blinken said.
The State Department stopped short of declaring the Myanmar atrocities to be genocide when it released the findings in 2018, in part to maintain an alliance with the government and keep neighboring China off-balance in the region. More than two years later, at the end of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the systemic abuse and detention of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China to be an act of genocide.
The Biden administration has also resisted declaring atrocities in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province to be a genocide, although Mr. Blinken has warned of cases of ethnic cleansing against civilians there. And just last week, Mr. Blinken said he believed that war crimes had been committed by Russian forces in their invasion of Ukraine but said investigators still had not concluded that officially.
Still, Mr. Blinken mentioned both conflicts on Monday. Shortly after his speech, the State Department also announced that it had designated Sudan’s Central Reserve Police as a human rights violator after accusations of rape, torture, and other abuses against pro-democracy protesters surfaced starting late last year, including as recently as last week.
“Over recent weeks, as I’ve spoken with diplomats from around the world about Ukraine, I’ve also heard a constant refrain,” Mr. Blinken said. “Many of them say: ‘Yes, we stand with the people of Ukraine. But we must also stand with people suffering atrocities in other places.’”
At one point, he stopped reading from his speech, displayed on a teleprompter. “It’s painful to even read these accounts,” he said after detailing some of the abuses against the Rohingya. “I ask each and every one of you listening: Put yourself in their place. Imagine this was your own child.”
Mr. Blinken’s speech came nearly 89 years to the day after the opening of the Nazis’ first concentration camp, in Dachau, Germany, where his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was held until he was liberated by American troops near the end of World War II. Mr. Pisar’s experiences helped shape Mr. Blinken’s zeal for advocating human rights and democracy in foreign policy.
“That pain ripples outward, from the individual victims and survivors to loved ones, friends, to entire communities,” he said. “We also must remember to see these individuals as more than victims, but rather as whole human beings.”
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