Rohingya people are seen near a makeshift house in Maungdaw, Rakhine State in western Myanmar. According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar since the army launched a military offensive in August 2017. File Photo by Nyunt Win/EPA-EFE
March 21 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced the United States has determined that the Myanmar military has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against its minority Rohingya population for the last five years.
Blinken made the announcement in remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as he noted Monday's designation marked the eighth time since the Holocaust that the United States has determined that genocide has been committed.
During the remarks, Blinken said the designation represented a step on the path out of genocide.
"It tells Rohingya, and victims in particular, that the United States government recognizes the gravity of the atrocities committed against them," he said. "And it affirms Rohingyas' human rights and dignities, something the Burmese military has tried to destroy."
Experts have long called on the U.S. government to make the designation to put more pressure on Myanmar's military government, which overthrew the civilian regime a year ago in a coup. The junta government is already facing accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
Camps for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are seen in UKhiya, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on February 12, 2018. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the beginning of what many call a genocide began in 2017. File Photo by Abir Abdullah/EPA-EFE
Violence against Rohingya in Myanmar has forced more than a million to flee to other countries, mostly Bangladesh, where many are now living in the world's largest refugee camp, Kutupalong.
Blinken on Monday said the decision to designate the violence against the Rohingya as genocide was made based on a review of factual assessment and legal analysis by the State Department, including a survey of 1,000 Rohingya refugees who were displaced by violence in 2016 and 2017.
He noted that more than half of the Rohingya surveyed reported witnessing sexual violence, and one in five witnessed the killing or injuring of more than 100 people in a single incident, demonstrating that "these abuses were not isolated cases."
"The evidence also points to clear intent behind these mass atrocities -- the intent to destroy Rohingya in whole or in part," Blinken said. "That intent has been corroborated by the accounts of soldiers who took part in the operation and later defected, such as one who said he was told by his commanding officer to, and I quote, 'shoot at every sight of a person,' end quote -- burn villages, rape and kill women, orders that he and his unit carried out."
Persecution against Myanmar's Rohingya population goes back as far as the 1970s, mostly committed by the Myanmar government and Buddhist nationalists in the country. Almost 90% of Myanmar's population are Buddhist and only about 4% are Muslim, which is the primary factor behind the religious persecution.
"The U.S. genocide declaration is a welcome and profoundly meaningful step," Daniel Sullivan, Refugees International deputy director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, said in a statement. "It is also a solid sign of commitment to justice for all the people who continue to face abuses by the military junta to this very today.
"The United States must now use the momentum of this genocide determination to spur concrete actions."
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom applauded the designation Monday, noting that it has been calling for the determination since 2017.
"The Rohingya have been targeted for decades by Burmese authorities -- the Tatmadaw in particular. This determination provides recognition to the Rohingya and acknowledges the severity of the atrocities that occurred, which is an important step toward achieving justice," USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza said in a statement.
"I'll never forget the painful stories I heard in 2017 from members of the Rohingya community in Burma and Bangladesh -- stories of violence and crimes against humanity," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a tweet.
"Good to see the [administration] take this overdue step to hold this brutal regime accountable, which I've pushed for years."
In a 2018 State Department report, U.S. officials said that military actions in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State against the Muslim population was "extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents."