US genocide declaration seen as a ‘way forward’ to justice for Rohingya

Rights groups welcomed Blinken’s announcement, but some advocates said the true test will come in follow-on action.
By Roseanne Gerin and Khin Maung Soe
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the "Burma's Path To Genocide" exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, March 21, 2022.

UPDATED at 1:38 P.M. EST on 2022-03-23

Rights groups on Monday welcomed the U.S.’s declaration that the Myanmar military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in 2017, but some advocates said the alleged perpetrators must actually be punished to deter more atrocities in the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the genocide determination was “based on reviewing a factual assessment and legal analysis prepared by the State Department,” including documentation from groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and his department’s “own rigorous fact-finding.”

The brutal 2017 crackdown against members of the Muslim minority group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. A crackdown in 2016 drove out more than 90,000 Rohingya from Rakhine.

The vast majority of those who fled the violence are still living in sprawling refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.

“We hope that by this determination, for the future of our country, the perpetrators from the military leadership will be [under] a lot more pressure from the international community,” Tun Khin, president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, who attended the event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, told RFA.

“I believe this will open up a way forward in order to get justice for the Rohingya people, other ethnic minorities, as well as for the citizens of Myanmar who are suffering killings and other human rights abuses every day by the military,” he said.

But Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted that sanctions already imposed by the U.S. and its allies on Myanmar generals deemed responsible for the crackdown have not seemed to alter the military’s brutal behavior.

The military still overthrew the elected government in a coup in February 2021 and has since attacked and killed thousands of citizens, he said. Additional sanctions at the United Nations would likely be blocked by China and Russia, Hiebert wrote in an email.

“Some human rights activists have called on the Biden administration to cut off oil and gas exports from Myanmar,” he said.

Maung Zarni, a Burmese research fellow at the Genocide Documentation Center-Cambodia and an adviser to the Genocide Watch, told RFA that Monday’s announcement must be followed by specific steps to punish the offenders.

“Unless this determination is translated into a concrete set of actions aimed at dealing the severest blow to the Burmese military, the principal perpetrating institution, it will have absolutely no deterrence effect on the ground,” he said via email.

Maung Zarni called the Biden administration to lead a global effort with the European Union, the U.K. and other democratic states to turn Myanmar into an international pariah, as they are doing with waves of crippling trade, financial, commercial and multilateral sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

'Remarkable milestone'

Christina Fink, a cultural anthropology professor at George Washington University who specializes in Myanmar, said Blinken’s determination will be deeply meaningful for the Rohingya, even though the wider consequences of labeling what happened in Rakhine a genocide are not immediately clear.

“They have experienced horrific physical and emotional violence at the hands of the Myanmar military, but on top of that, they have not been fully believed by fellow residents in Myanmar or by all governments,” she said via email. “The U.S. government’s determination that the Rohingya have indeed experienced crimes against humanity and genocide restores dignity to the Rohingya people.”

Fink said the determination could influence an ongoing case brought by Gambia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The West African nation has accused Myanmar’s military leadership of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention in Rohingya areas.

“The Myanmar military regime has tried to downplay the case saying that it’s just brought by the Gambia with the support of Muslim-majority countries because most Rohingya are Muslim,” she said. “The U.S. government’s determination demonstrates that this is not about religious affinity but about the rights of all human beings to citizenship, security and opportunity.”

Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner and founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar, told RFA that the determination was important for the Rohingya who were killed or displaced and for their families.

“A genocide determination by a powerful country like the United States is like an official pledge or promise that it will help end the human rights violations, including the genocide in our country,” she said.

Southeast Asian rights group Fortify Rights, which has documented the violence against the Rohingya, called the determination “historic” and called on U.N. member states to publicly acknowledge the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and for the U.N. Security Council to put forward a resolution to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, which unlike the ICJ can prosecute individuals.

“It is a signaling and remarkable milestone for Rohingya victims and survivors that the U.S. 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, in a statement. “It has been a long-term expectation for the Rohingya community.”

Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat, said any attempt to secure a U.N. Security Council referral to the ICC would likely founder on Chinese and Russian vetoes.

“Even then, there would be the challenge of actually apprehending those deemed responsible,” he said in an email. “The only way that happens is if the Myanmar military collapses, or if there is an internal coup that opens the way to candidates being handed over to an international court. Needless to say, neither of these outcomes are very likely, at least right now.”

In Bangladesh, where the Rohingya refugees now live, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan also welcomed the Biden administration’s decision.

“The U.S. announcement would help restore the civil rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar and speed up their repatriation,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “The international community and all peoples should know about the genocide and other inhuman atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya leader living in a no-man’s land at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Bandarban district told BenarNews: “The massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar is a classic example of genocide. The international community believed it, but they did not officially recognize it.

“This is no doubt that the U.S. designation of genocide is positive for the Rohingya,” he said.

Translated by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Additional reporting by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

CLARIFICATION: The article was updated to include comments by Sebastian Strangio.


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