The United States has formally recognized the actions of Myanmar’s army against the Rohingya minority as genocide and declared them as crimes against humanity. The declaration came during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s address at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on March 21.

“Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times.  Today marks the eighth, as I have determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya,” said Blinken.

The 2017 military operation of the Burmese Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) pushed out at least 730,000 Rohingya from their communities into Bangladesh. In 2021, the same military force took over the country in a military coup.

In his speech, the Secretary disclosed that the decision was made on the back of investigations made by the State Department, which pooled documentation from independent sources, including human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Blinken shared the results of a survey conducted on more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees based in Bangladesh. According to the poll, all were displaced by the violence during 2016 or 2017. Around 75% of the interviewees claim they had personally witnessed a murder from the military. Over half of the witnesses saw acts of sexual violence, and 1 in 5 were first-hand witnesses of a mass-casualty event, an incident that results in the killing or injuring of more than 100 people.

“These percentages matter,” said the Secretary, who implied that the results mean the abuses were not isolated cases. “The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic, which is crucial for reaching a determination of crimes against humanity.”

There was also clear evidence of intent, according to Blinken. The Secretary shared accounts of racial slurs towards Rohingya minorities as they were being attacked by the Burmese military and the destruction of religious sites and items.

Blinken also cited instances of Burmese soldiers bragging about their plans on social media and public comments from top officials from the Burmese military in seeming support of atrocities committed against civilians.

“Percentages, numbers, patterns, intent: these are critically important to reach the determination of genocide. But at the same time, we must remember that behind each of these numbers are countless individual acts of cruelty and inhumanity.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken observing photographs of Rohingya people at the United States Holocaust Museum (Secretary Antony Blinken Twitter Account). Source:
Secretary of State Antony Blinken observing photographs of Rohingya people at the United States Holocaust Museum (Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) Twitter Account).

Blinked likened the acts of the Burmese military to Nazi Germany, particularly the preparations they made for genocide.

The first Nazi concentration camp was opened in 1933, years before the tragic events of the Holocaust. Similarly, the Rohingya minority saw the gradual degradation of their rights and citizenship over the past decades.

“That’s the groundwork for genocide, the fact that it is laid far in advance, over years, even decades, through a steady process of dehumanization and demonization.”

Since the 1960s, the Burmese government slowly removed traces of the Rohingya language and culture from state-run services. Soon after, killings, rape, and the destruction of their communities followed suit.

Parallelisms between the Burmese and the Nazis were also drawn, one being the use of hate speech. Members of the Rohingya community were likened to thorns, fleas, and an invasive species, which is quite similar to when the Jews were compared to parasites and rodents.

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“Understanding the contours of this path is a core part of the Holocaust Museum’s mission,” said Blinken.

“It’s crucial to all of us who are committed to living up to the maxim of ‘Never again.’ By learning to spot the signs of the worst atrocities, we’re empowered to prevent them.”

What Comes Next?

After the events of the military coup in Myanmar, the US and its allies sanctioned the junta and targeted their business interests. However, the pressure proved to be insufficient in pushing the generals to restore civilian leadership with the help of diplomatic and military aid from China and Russia.

“Since the coup, we have seen the Burmese military use many of the same tactics. Only now the military is targeting anyone in Burma it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule,” Blinken said.

Advocates for the declaration said that although the statement lacked automatic measures, it carries significant political weight, which can help push judicial efforts to penalize the Burmese junta.

According to Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch John Sifton, Washington should coordinate with the United Nations to extend sanctions to the foreign reserves of Myanmar, which benefit from oil and gas exports.

“The Myanmar military will continue to commit atrocities so long as other governments fail to impose measures to hold them accountable,” he said.

Blinken announced $1 million in funding for an investigation of Myanmar to be led by the UN. He also said that the US shared intel with The Gambia, which launched a genocide case against Myanmar at the International Criminal Court of Justice.

While comparing the atrocities between the Rohingya people and the Jews, he also drew parallelisms between the Holocaust and the war in Ukraine. He said that the memory of the Holocaust was deeply felt, especially in today’s times of war, where the Russians had bombed the Babyn Yar and had killed thousands of civilians over the nearly four weeks of the war.

Over 10,000 Holocaust survivors live in Ukraine, one of which was Boris Romantschenko, 96, who died because a bullet flew into his house while the Russians were shelling Kharkiv.