US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while speaking at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, on March 24, announced that the United States has formally determined that violence committed against the Rohingya minority by Myanmar’s military amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity. He said the administration’s determination was based on a review by the US state department that included documents gathered by organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as independent research by the US.
“Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times. Today marks the eighth, because I’ve determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya,” Blinken said, adding that the military’s intent went beyond ethnic cleansing to the actual destruction of Rohingya. In his speech, Blinken pointed to multiple parallels between the Myanmar military’s campaign to wipe out the Rohingya and the Holocaust, the slaughter of Rwandan Tutsi and other genocides. “The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic, which was crucial for reaching a determination of crimes against humanity,” Blinken said, adding that the evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities, the intent to destroy Rohingya in whole or in part.
A legal designation of genocide – defined by the UN as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – could be followed by further sanctions and limits on aid, among other penalties against the already-isolated military junta.
The declaration has come at a time when around 850,000 Rohingya are languishing in camps in neighboring Bangladesh, recounting mass killings and rape of the campaign that was launched against them five years ago. Another 600,000 members of the community remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where they report widespread oppression.
The brutalisation of this community has been a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Survivors have recounted that, amidst the worst of it, they were pulled from their homes, mutilated, raped and forced to witness children thrown into fires — the inhuman violence begotten by hateful propaganda painting the Rohingya as sub-human ‘intruders’ from Bangladesh. The violence was then normalised through victim-blaming commentary shared widely by bigots on social media, especially Facebook, which did little to stem its spread. Yet, both the Myanmar military and the government denied the atrocities committed against a largely defenceless people, and refused accountability. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, then the leader of Myanmar, even travelled to The Hague to rebut charges of genocide brought against her country in a case still ongoing at the UN’s top court.
So heated was the fire of hate unleashed in 2017 that it eventually burnt even those who had refused to condemn it. When the Myanmar military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in 2021 through a coup d’état, it took a leaf from its Rohingya playbook to violently subjugate critics and dissidents engaged in peaceful protests. The junta has since killed more than 1,500 citizens for civil disobedience. This worrying state of affairs is mentioned in the US statement on Myanmar’s 2017 genocide, which warns that the Myanmar military may continue deploying the same tactics against anyone it sees as undermining its rule.
The US decision to formally recognise the brutalities inflicted on the Rohingya as genocide is a small but welcome step towards getting justice for what has been described by the UN as the most persecuted minority in the world. Rohingya refugees and diaspora have long called for this recognition, with the support of Members of Congress, legal experts, and advocacy groups like Refugees International alike. This is the time to celebrate a significant victory. But it is also time to redouble efforts to hold the perpetrators of that genocide accountable and to prevent future atrocities.
Overall, the United States must now use the momentum of this genocide determination to spur concrete actions. While several steps have been taken to increase pressure on the Burmese junta since its coup in February 2021, effective global coordination is lacking. The United States must use the gravity of the genocide determination to lead a new diplomatic push, including with Myanmar’s neighbours in Southeast Asia, for further targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, and support for evidence collection and accountability efforts before the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. The United States can also show solidarity with Rohingya survivors by maintaining humanitarian assistance for the million Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh and by working with Bangladesh to offer resettlement to Rohingya refugees in the United States.
Moreover, it is time now for the global community to act. While the UN’s highest court hears a case pertaining to the genocide, the world must hold Myanmar authorities accountable for their crimes against humanity. Myanmar’s elite must be sanctioned in the strongest possible ways to warn imitators that severe brutalities will be met with severe penalties.