U.S. declares Myanmar army committed genocide in Rohingya attacks

Violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday, a declaration intended to both generate international pressure and lay the groundwork for potential legal action.

Long-awaited decision from U.S. government could mobilize international community

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks after viewing the exhibit entitled Burma's Path To Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Blinken said the violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide. (Kevin Lamarque/The Associated Press)

Violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday, 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 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

It is the eighth time since the Holocaust that the U.S. 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.

"Yes, we stand with the people of Ukraine," he said. "And we must also stand with people who are suffering atrocities in other places."

The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is already under multiple layers of U.S. 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.

"As we lay the foundation for future accountability, we're also working to stop the military's ongoing atrocities, and support the people of Burma as they strive to put the country back on the path to democracy," Blinken 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.

Rohingya refugees are shown lining up for aid at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on Sept. 26, 2017. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

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. Earlier this month, a boat containing over 100 Rohingya refugees made it to shore in Indonesia.

Declaration 'long overdue': Senate Democrat

The status of the plight of the Rohingya had been under extended review by U.S. 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.

"While this determination is long overdue, it is nevertheless a powerful and critically important step in holding this brutal regime to account," said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Human rights groups also welcomed the determination, which is similar to findings already made by other countries, including Canada, France and Turkey.

WATCH | Bob Rae testifies to parliamentary committee in 2018 after trips to Cox's Bazar:

Rae gets emotional describing plight of Rohingya

4 years ago
Duration 4:40
Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to Myanmar Bob Rae breaks down while describing his meetings with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to the Senate Human Rights Committee

Bob Rae, then-special envoy to Myanmar, recommended in a 2018 report that Canada increase its humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya and that the federal government work with international partners to launch an investigation into crimes against humanity and genocide in Myanmar.

Human Rights Watch said the U.S. and other governments should seek justice for crimes carried out by the military and impose stronger sanctions against its leadership.

"The U.S. government should couple its condemnations of Myanmar's military with action," said John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director. "For too long, the U.S. and other countries have allowed Myanmar's generals to commit atrocities with few real consequences."

A 2018 U.S. State Department report documented instances of Myanmar's military razing villages and carrying out rapes, tortures and mass killings of civilians since at least 2016. Blinken said evidence showed the violence wasn't isolated, but part of a systematic program that amounts to crimes against humanity.

"The evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities, the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part, through killings, rape, and torture," he said.

Previous determinations of genocide by the U.S. include campaigns against Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities in China as well as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur.

Rights group questions Meta's progress on Rohingya hate speech

Facebook has been criticized for failing to prevent hate speech and calls to violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

A report shared exclusively with The Associated Press showed the rights group Global Witness submitted eight paid ads for approval to Facebook, each including different versions of hate speech against Rohingya. All eight ads were approved by Facebook to be published.

The ads were not published, but the results confirmed that despite its promises to do better, Facebook is not effectively preventing hate speech on its platforms, Global Witness said on Monday.

Experts say such ads continued to appear even though they played a role in acts of genocide against the Rohingya.

"The current killing of the Kalar is not enough, we need to kill more!" read one proposed paid post from Global Witness, using a slur often used in Myanmar to refer to people of east Indian or Muslim origin.

The company now called Meta has refused to say how many of its content moderators read Burmese and can thus detect hate speech in Myanmar.

"I accept the point that eight isn't a very big number. But I think the findings are really stark, that all eight of the ads were accepted for publication," said Rosie Sharpe, a campaigner at Global Witness. "I think you can conclude from that that the overwhelming majority of hate speech is likely to get through."

In a unique legal move in late 2021, a class-action suit was filed in the U.S. by Rohingya refugees against Meta Platforms Inc, formerly known as Facebook, for $150 billion US over allegations that the social media company did not take action against anti-Rohingya hate speech that contributed to violence.

With files from CBC News