Violent repression of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar amounts to genocide, US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said.
The declaration is 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, Mr 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 said, noting 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 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 an ongoing campaign of repression against anyone opposed to the ruling junta.
More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group.
Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.
US State Department experts have documented instances of Myanmar’s military razing villages and carrying out rapes, tortures and mass killings of civilians since at least 2016.
The determination that a genocide has occurred could lead to additional international 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,” Mr Blinken said.
Human rights groups and legislators have been pressing both the then-Trump and Biden administrations to make the designation, and they welcomed the announcement.
“The US determination of the crime of genocide against us is a momentous moment and must lead to concrete action to hold the Burmese military accountable for their crimes,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
Previous determinations of genocide by the US include campaigns against Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities in China as well as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur.