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Tell U.S. Leadership: Call It Genocide for the Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar)

Burma’s military coup shows the need for U.S. leaders to finally acknowledge the genocide against the Rohingya people and support the movement for justice.

The Burmese military has overthrown the country’s civilian government and is trampling on the rights of their people to live and express themselves freely. Since the February 1 coup in Burma (Myanmar), the country’s oppressive military has killed or imprisoned hundreds of activists protesting their rule. Burma’s vaunted “transition to democracy” has collapsed, and the generals who terrorized the country for decades are back in full possession of the state. 

It’s a horrific turn of events—but not a surprising one. Rohingya activists and other Burmese ethnic minorities warned against this for years. Even while the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi was partially in power, the military committed a genocide against the Rohingya and persecuted other minorities. Burma’s leaders—both civilian and military—worked together to disenfranchise the Rohingya, strip them of citizenship, and force them to live under apartheid conditions. 

U.S. policymakers should have acknowledged sooner that Burma’s “democratic transition” was a sham. Instead, they poured millions of dollars into aid projects that were forced to meet conditions set by the Burmese government. And while some U.S. leaders spoke out against the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities, the State Department never formally acknowledged the genocide or supported international legal mechanisms to seek justice. 

The tragic events unfolding in Burma demand the U.S. shift course. The Burmese military’s actions have torn the mask off the country’s “democratic transition,” revealing the face of a genocidal military regime that never really left power. U.S. policy toward Burma must acknowledge this reality. We call on the U.S. State Department to: 

  1. Officially recognize the 2017 mass expulsion and ongoing persecution of the Rohingya as a genocide under international law; and 
  2. Support efforts through international mechanisms to bring the perpetrators to justice, including the case brought by the Gambia against Myanmar’s authorities in the International Court of Justice of the United Nations.

Add your name to our petition below to amplify these demands! Read the full text of the petition below the signing widget.

Petition to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. State Department

We, the undersigned, write to express our gratitude for your actions to hold the Burmese military accountable for their violent February 1 coup against the country’s elected civilian government. We urge you to follow through on the steps you announced, while also supporting broader demands to bring Burma’s military leaders to justice. This requires pressing for accountability not only for the events following February 1, but for the multitude of crimes the Burmese military (Thatmadaw) has committed against ethnic minorities, including the ongoing genocide against the Rophingya people. However unwittingly, prior U.S. policy enabled these abuses. The recent military coup invites a change of course. 

First, we recognize and appreciate the steps you and other administration officials have already taken to seek justice and hold the Burmese military junta accountable, including applying new targeted sanctions to many of the individuals and entities responsible for the February coup. We now urge you to go one crucial step further by issuing a formal genocide determination.

This recommendation is based on a substantial and growing body of evidence. Numerous human rights observers, international bodies, and legal scholars have already concluded that the Burmese military’s actions in August 2017 (which were themselves the culmination of decades of persecution, apartheid, and disenfranchisement) meet the definition of genocide. The prior administration even went so far as to acknowledge that their assessment of the events of August 2017 were “consistent with” the finding of genocide, but they stopped short of issuing a formal genocide determination.

While we are grateful for the steps prior U.S. administrations have taken to condemn the Thatmadaw’s actions, this failure to issue a formal determination sends a mixed message. Sadly, this same inconsistent approach has characterized U.S. policy toward Burma for too long. U.S. officials have criticized the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and apartheid conditions prevailing in part of the country’s Rakhine State, yet they have also fed a false narrative that Burma was undergoing a “democratic transition,” and that forceful measures to seek justice and accountability would risk derailing these efforts.

While such a strategy may have appeared justified at one time, it is plain now it did not work. The events of February 1 tore the mask off of Burma’s supposed “democratic transition” and made clear that the military never truly ceded authority to civilian leadership. Nor did the civilian government—even when it was nominally in power— take meaningful steps to hold the Thatmadaw accountable for their crimes. As USAID Administrator Samantha Power told a UUSC audience in 2020, the U.S. strategy to align with the civilian government (sometimes at the cost of muting urgent human rights concerns) was “a gamble that did not pay off.”

The tragic events unfolding in Burma since February 1 invite a change of course. This time, the United States should place support for human rights, justice, and accountability at the center of our foreign policy with respect to Burma. Specifically, we urge you to:

  1. Officially recognize that the 2017 mass expulsion and ongoing persecution of the Rohingya constitute a genocide under international law. 
  2. Support efforts through international mechanisms to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice, including the case brought by the Gambia against Myanmar’s authorities in the International Court of Justice of the United Nations.

The events of February 1 and after have highlighted as strongly as possible the need for a new U.S. approach to Burma. We believe this administration is capable of crafting a more coherent policy that is grounded in the pursuit of justice and support for the communities and civil society organizations who have been harmed most by the Thatmadaw’s crimes—and who are already leading the international movement for accountability and redress. The United States can and should lend its voice to these efforts.

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Photo Credit: iStock – Joel Carillet