A U.S. government investigation concluded that Myanmar’s military orchestrated a “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of violence against the country’s Rohingya minority, but stopped short of labeling the atrocities “genocide” or “crimes against humanity.”
The State Department probe, released quietly on Monday, included interviews with more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Over 700,000 members of the persecuted and mostly stateless minority now languish in refugee camps after they fled a devastating, military-led campaign of mass murder, sexual violence and arson last year. An estimated 10,000 Rohingya were killed in the crackdown, according to U.N. investigators.
The State Department’s report underscores both the staggering scale of violence, as well as the military’s chief role in leading it: 84% of interviewees reported witnessing a military-perpetrated killing or injury, while 40% witnessed a rape committed by security forces.
“The survey reveals that the recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” the report’s summary says.
“In some areas,” it adds, “perpetrators used tactics that resulted in mass casualties, for example, locking people in houses to burn them, fencing off entire villages before shooting into the crowd, or sinking boats full of hundreds of fleeing Rohingya.”
The harrowing picture painted in the 20-page report could prompt calls for the U.S. to adopt a more punitive stance toward Myanmar. In December, the U.S. sanctioned one general who oversaw the region where violence occurred. Additional embargoes were added against four commanders and two military units in August.
Yet Monday’s report, which was released without any attention-grabbing fanfare like an accompanying press conference or a press release, did not identify further steps for accountability. It also shied away from terms like “genocide” or “crimes against humanity,” which could have legal implications committing the U.S. to tougher measures.
The State Department assessment follows an exhaustive report by a U.N. Fact Finding Mission that recommended Myanmar’s military leaders be tried for genocide. The U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar has also said the violence bears “the hallmarks of genocide.”
The issue of whether the U.S. would follow suit and likewise call the violence genocide proved controversial both inside and outside of Washington, with some activists perceiving the determination as an indication of the government’s commitment to seeking justice for the atrocities. According to Reuters, the debate around the designation proved so divisive within the State Department that it delayed the report’s release by nearly one month.
One official, speaking anonymously, said it was up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make a “legal” determination that the violence amounts to genocide.
Pressed for comment by POLITICO, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. “previously characterized the events described in the report as ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We believe the findings of this report fully support that conclusion.”
Legal action could proceed without American involvement, at any rate. Last week, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor announced a preliminary examination into Myanmar’s forced expulsions of the Rohingya, a first step toward possible prosecutions.
There is recent precedent for the U.S. to use the genocide label. The State’s investigation was modeled after a probe into mass atrocities committed in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which prompted the U.S. declaration of genocide and sanctions against the Sudanese government, Reuters reports. And members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, have said ISIS’s attacks on Christians constitute a genocide.
While the U.S. has yet to make such a designation or outline stiffer penalties in Myanmar’s case, on Monday, the government announced it is nearly doubling its humanitarian aid for the crisis. An additional $185 million will be allocated to displaced Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
In announcing the aid at a press conference ahead of the U.N. General Assembly session this week, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called on the Myanmar government to “do more to hold those who have engaged in ethnic cleansing accountable for their atrocities.”