The U.S. Has Recognized Myanmar’s Genocide. But Is That Enough?

Rohingya activists and human rights defenders plead for more action against Myanmar’s military junta government.

By , a deputy copy editor at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed wire fence.
Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed wire fence.
Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement setup in a border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh on April 25, 2018. Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images

The United States formally declared this week that the atrocities and ethnic violence Myanmar’s military has committed against the country’s Rohingya minority constitute a “genocide,” following a yearslong campaign by advocates of the minority group and global human rights organizations urging the United States to do so.

International attention on Myanmar’s offensive against the Rohingya intensified when violence against the ethnic group peaked in 2017, following years of repression. The five-year gap between the surge in violence and the U.S. genocide declaration led some human rights activists to criticize Washington for taking too long to make the determination, and they have called on the Biden administration to step up efforts to protect the Rohingya.

“For five years now, the Rohingya community has been asking for the U.S. government to recognize their suffering for what it was,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “For many Rohingya, they feel that this prolonged period of time has enhanced their suffering and enhanced the risks that they have faced.”

The United States formally declared this week that the atrocities and ethnic violence Myanmar’s military has committed against the country’s Rohingya minority constitute a “genocide,” following a yearslong campaign by advocates of the minority group and global human rights organizations urging the United States to do so.

International attention on Myanmar’s offensive against the Rohingya intensified when violence against the ethnic group peaked in 2017, following years of repression. The five-year gap between the surge in violence and the U.S. genocide declaration led some human rights activists to criticize Washington for taking too long to make the determination, and they have called on the Biden administration to step up efforts to protect the Rohingya.

“For five years now, the Rohingya community has been asking for the U.S. government to recognize their suffering for what it was,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “For many Rohingya, they feel that this prolonged period of time has enhanced their suffering and enhanced the risks that they have faced.”


Who are the Rohingya, and how have they been persecuted? 

The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, representing just about 1 million of Myanmar’s total population of 55 million. Most Rohingya live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where more than 69 percent of the population lives in poverty.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, ousted the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her ruling National League for Democracy party, seizing full control of the government. Since then, a military junta led by Gen. ​Min Aung Hlaing has consistently targeted Rohingya and other anti-military protesters, though the junta denies this. But Myanmar’s path to genocide began years earlier.

Though the roots of ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar go back decades, to the British colonial era, it helps for our purposes here to start the story in 1962, when the Myanmar military launched a successful coup against the country’s civilian-led government, beginning the dictatorship of military commander Ne Win.

Under Ne Win’s leadership, scorched-earth campaigns were launched against a number of armed groups seeking greater autonomy for the various ethnic and religious minorities in the country’s borderlands. Over time, these efforts and discriminatory laws coalesced around the Rohingya specifically. By 1978, Rohingya were forced to register as “foreigners,” marking the community’s first mass migration to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law only worsened the Rohingya’s treatment, as it formally denied all Rohingya political rights and citizenship status.

The end of Ne Win’s reign did not end the cycle of systemic abuse. In 1991, Myanmar’s “Clean and Beautiful Nation” campaign—meant to expel so-called foreigners from Rakhine state and prevent the expansion of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a political insurgency group—led to the mass destruction of Rohingya communities, forcing 250,000 more people to flee to Bangladesh.

Over the next three decades, several waves of ethnic and religious violence and brutal military crackdowns on the Rohingya occurred, including in 2012 and 2017. These included the razing of entire Rohingya communities, mass killings and rapes, and the forced detention of thousands of men, women, and children.

As of 2017, the government held more than 120,000 Rohingya in internment camps and had killed thousands of people, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Today, that number is estimated to be much larger.


What exactly did the U.S. government announce?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced that the United States has formally determined that “members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.” (The United States formally refers to Myanmar as Burma. Myanmar’s military junta changed its country’s name to Myanmar in 1989 to remove its colonial past and promote ethnic unity. However, “Myanmar” is just a more formal version of “Burma” in the Burmese language, and most of the international community continues to call the country Burma to delegitimize the anti-democratic government that made the change.)

The U.S. designation focuses on mass atrocities committed in 2016 and 2017, when more than 800,000 Rohingya were forced to flee from violence.

“It’s a decision that I reached based on reviewing a factual assessment and legal analysis prepared by the State Department, which included detailed documentation by a range of independent, impartial sources, including human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as our own rigorous fact-finding,” Blinken said in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“[It] was a very bittersweet moment,” Kikoler said. “We should not have to, 80 years after the Holocaust, come together for moments like that, and I think as you saw in [Blinken’s] statement, to make a genocide determination is to acknowledge our failing, a collective international failing, to prevent a crime we have committed that we’d promised to never allow again to happen.”

According to interviews with more than 1,000 Rohingya by the U.S. State Department, 75 percent of the Rohingya interviewed personally witnessed the military kill someone, and 1 in 5 people witnessed a mass casualty event. “These percentages matter,” Blinken said. “They demonstrate that these abuses were not isolated cases. The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic.”

The announcement came during Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn’s first visit to Myanmar as representative of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Discussions between ASEAN and Myanmar’s ruling military junta thus far have centered on implementing ASEAN’s five-point peace consensus, which urges a cessation of all violence in Myanmar, creation of a peace dialogue chaired by an ASEAN special envoy, and acceptance of humanitarian aid.


What is a genocide determination, and how will it affect the campaign to protect the Rohingya? 

Blinken’s determination that the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya amount to a genocide marks the eighth time the United States has concluded a genocide was committed since the Holocaust. The U.S. government has declared genocide in past ethnic cleansing campaigns and massacres in Bosnia; Rwanda; Darfur in Sudan; northern Iraq, where the Islamic State targeted Yazidi Christians (once in 2016 and once in 2017); Armenia; and, most recently, western China, where the Chinese government has conducted a sweeping crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities.

The determination comes after a formal analysis of evidence and international legal assessments by expert lawyers and policymakers in the U.S. State Department. But experts say such announcements can also be sped up—or slow-walked—by political pressures or policy concerns with the country in question.

Avril Haines and John Bellinger III, two seasoned foreign-policy experts who have held senior government positions, wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019 that there have been instances where “policymakers were reluctant to use the word ‘genocide’—at least in part because of concerns that doing so might generate unwanted pressure to take action that an administration believed to be inconsistent with U.S. interests.”

Most experts agree that the determination itself won’t suddenly halt persecution against ethnic Rohingya. But human rights organizations still say it matters, both for ramping up pressure on the military junta running Myanmar and for laying the groundwork to hold military officials complicit in the genocide accountable, whether through international tribunals or future economic sanctions.


What are the United States’ next steps?

Along with the determination, Blinken announced the United States is applying targeted sanctions against 65 Myanmar leaders and their associates, as well as sanctions and export controls on 26 entities accused of human rights abuses or of funding the Myanmar military. In addition, the United States pledged to give almost $1 million in additional funding for the mechanisms investigating the crimes. This is on top of $1.6 billion provided to Rohingya refugees since 2017.

“We’re crying, and now we feel like we can breathe,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya activist and founder of the Women’s Peace Network, speaking of her colleagues’ sentiments toward the designation.

But for many, promises of sanctions aren’t enough. Human rights advocates say the U.S. government needs to do more to hold the Myanmar military junta accountable, even while welcoming the new determination as an important first step.

“The U.S. government should couple its condemnations of Myanmar’s military with action,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement after Blinken’s announcement. “For too long, the U.S. and other countries have allowed Myanmar’s generals to commit atrocities with few real consequences.”

U.S. lawmakers are also pushing the administration to do more, though their public suggestions for action have remained vague. “We urge the Administration, and the international community, to continue to do more to hold the military junta accountable, redouble efforts to restore democracy, and bring about a genuine national reconciliation to Burma,” U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and James Risch said in a joint statement.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy in a statement that the United States is working with its allies to cut off arms transfers and sales as well as the transfer of dual-use equipment to the Myanmar military regime. “This designation will help deny [the military junta] what little credibility they have left, both domestically and internationally,” the spokesperson said.


How have Rohingya responded to the designation? 

Many in the Rohingya diaspora community and in Myanmar expressed relief at the United States’ decision, saying the act of labeling their trauma as genocide validates their experiences.

“A genocide determination basically tells us that you are deserving of human dignity,” said Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya social justice activist, during a panel at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “You are deserving to be treated, to be loved, to be part of this global community as much as anyone else. And that is what I am going to carry with me for the rest of my life.”

But while past determinations have shed light on genocide and pressured the international community to take tangible action, this designation (like those before it) certainly doesn’t mean the genocide will end anytime soon.

“In a world where there are so many crises, we can’t lose sight of the fact that today, there are Rohingya living in internment camps who cannot leave, with no freedom of movement whatsoever, who face a bleak future in Burma, and they receive little to no attention,” Kikoler said.

Ullah stressed the importance of listening to and involving Rohingya in government decision-making processes, particularly women facing gender-based violence. More than 50 percent of the 1,000 Rohingya interviewed by the State Department witnessed acts of sexual violence.

In addition, Wai Wai Nu called for tangible punishments for perpetrators of genocide and for support for victims’ communities, including the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya now belonging to the diaspora. This includes advocating for U.S. funding for Gambia’s International Court of Justice case against Myanmar, which argues that Myanmar violated the 1948 Genocide Convention, which both countries have ratified.


What has been Myanmar’s reaction?

Nothing so far. The Myanmar Embassy did not respond to a request for comment. The ruling military junta continues to deny it is perpetrating a genocide or other crimes against humanity.

Alexandra Sharp is a deputy copy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @AlexandraSSharp

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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