The violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week, in a landmark a declaration intended to both generate international pressure and lay the groundwork for potential legal action.
Authorities made the determination based on confirmed accounts of mass atrocities on civilians by Myanmar's military in a widespread and systematic campaign against the ethnic minority, Blinken said in a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is the eighth time since the Holocaust that the US has concluded a genocide has occurred. The secretary of state noted the importance of calling attention to inhumanity even as horrific attacks occur elsewhere in the world, including Ukraine.
The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is already under multiple layers of US sanctions since a military coup ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021. Thousands of civilians throughout the country have been killed and imprisoned as part of ongoing repression of anyone opposed to the ruling junta.
The determination that a genocide has occurred could lead other nations to increase pressure on the government, which is already facing accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Blinken's announcement "emphasizes, especially to victims and survivors, that the United States recognizes the gravity of these crimes."
"Our view is that shining a light on the crimes of Burma's military will increase international pressure, make it harder for them to commit further abuses," she said.
Rohingya, from Muslim Myanmar's western Rakhine state, faced systematic persecution at the hands of the Buddhist majority for decades under both the military junta that ruled the nation for decades as well as the democratically-elected government. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military launched an operation aimed at clearing them from the country following attacks by a rebel group.
The status of the plight of the Rohingya had been under extended review by US government legal experts since the Trump administration, given potential legal ramifications of such a finding. The delay in the determination had drawn criticism from both inside and outside the government.
Human rights groups welcomed the determination, which is similar to findings already made by other countries, including Canada, France and Turkey.
In the camps
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh particularly welcomed announcement. On the other hand, Myanmar's military government, which has already been sued in the International Court of Justice on genocide charges, said it categorically rejected the U.S. declaration.
As news of the announcement by Secretary Blinken spread across the sprawling camps in Cox's Bazar district that are now home to about 1 million Rohingya, many residents expressed their enthusiasm.
"We are very happy on the declaration of the genocide; many many thanks," said 60-year-old Sala Uddin, who lives at Kutupalong camp.
"It has been 60 years starting from 1962 that the Myanmar government has been torturing us and many other communities including Rohingya," he said. "I think a path to take action by the international community against Myanmar has opened up because of the declaration."
Imtiaz Ahmed, director of the Centre for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka, said the declaration was "a positive step," but it would be important to see what actions and "concrete steps" follow.
"Just by saying that genocide had been committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya is not good enough. I think we need to see what would follow from that statement," Ahmed said.
He said it was too early to say how the new development would ensure the recognition of the Rohingya refugees, who have long been denied citizenship in Myanmar, and the fundamental questions remained how and when they would go back to Myanmar.
He also said that going for harsh economic sanctions by the U.S. against Myanmar could be the next outcome. He said it was also equally important to see whether the U.S. would take interest in supporting the International Court of Justice in The Hague where Myanmar is facing a trial put forward by Gambia.
In its first official reaction following the U.S. action, the foreign ministry of Myanmar's military government firmly rejected the accusations. The statement issued Tuesday, a day after Blinken spoke, charged that Blinken's declaration was politically motivated and amounted to interference in Myanmar's internal affairs.
They also once again refused to use the name Rohingya, instead referring to them as the 'Bengali Community'. In the past they have referred to them as 'Bengali Muslims'. The Myanmarese government refuses to use the name as a tactic to delegitimise their claim to be among the ethnic nationalities of Myanmar.
However, a statement from Myanmar's main opposition group, the National Unity Government, which considers itself to be the country's legitimate administrative body, said it welcomed Washington's declaration. The group was established by lawmakers who were not allowed to take their seats when the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The NUG acknowledges that discriminatory practices and rhetoric against the Rohingya also laid the ground for these atrocities," said a statement, issued in the name of the group's acting president, Duwa Lashi La. "The impunity enjoyed by the military's leadership has since enabled their direction of countrywide crimes at the helm of an illegal military junta."
"Justice and accountability must follow this determination," it said.
A historic step
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, termed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's announcement "historic" for the Rohingya and all people of Myanmar and also for wider efforts to prevent and remedy genocide.
"To prevent genocide, governments must at least acknowledge it when it happens, which is precisely what the US government did today
United Nations member states should publicly acknowledge the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and ensure that the UN Security Council refers the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), said Fortify Rights Monday.
"It is a signalling and remarkable milestone for Rohingya victims and survivors that the US has formally determined that the violence committed against Rohingya by the Myanmar military amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity," said Zaw Win, human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.
"It has been a long-term expectation for the Rohingya community. Declaring that what happened to the Rohingya is in fact genocide should spur international accountability efforts and make it more difficult for the Myanmar military to continue its atrocity crimes."
In November 2019, the Gambia filed a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the UN's highest court, for failing to prevent or punish genocide against Rohingya Muslims. The case is ongoing.
In September 2018, the ICC granted the chief prosecutor jurisdiction to investigate and possibly prosecute the crime against humanity of forced deportation of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, as well as persecution and other inhumane acts.
Last month, Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan concluded his first visit to Bangladesh as part of the ongoing investigation.
While the ICC is investigating forced deportation, it is not yet investigating the crime of genocide against Rohingya.
And the intergovernmental organisation has not yet accepted the National Unity Government of Myanmar's declaration delegating jurisdiction of the court.
The UN Security Council members should immediately put forward a resolution to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC, said Fortify Rights.
The UN members should also acknowledge the legitimacy of the National Unity Government of Myanmar and get fully behind its efforts to delegate jurisdiction to the court.
"Secretary Blinken's announcement is historic for the Rohingya and all people of Myanmar and also for wider efforts to prevent and remedy genocide," said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights.
"To prevent genocide, governments must at least acknowledge it when it happens, which is precisely what the US government did today."
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