On Monday, March 21, 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally announced that the United States has determined that members of the Burmese military committed acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya community in Burma.
The designation was a long time in coming. As Wai Wai Nu, a Burmese rights activist and former political prisoner, wrote in response, “For too long, we have felt abandoned by the world. For years, we pleaded for help—but our calls went unanswered. The violence and suffering we endured were compounded by the realization that so much of the world preferred to look away.”
In 2018, just one year after brutal attacks against the Rohingya in August 2017, the Religious Freedom Institute published its own report, The Rohingya Crisis: The Shameful Global Response to Genocide and the Assault on Religious Freedom, calling for a recognition of these atrocities as genocide. As the report noted, the military “executed a campaign of collective punishment against the entire community. It is crystal clear that the end game is to depopulate Burma of all Rohingyas, and to do so through all means necessary, including ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
As Secretary Blinken explained, the genocide determination was made following a review of evidence collected by the State Department and reports from other organizations, including Fortify Rights, Amnesty International, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
These attacks did not occur in a vacuum but emerged within the particular religious, social, and political landscape of Burma. There was a deadly combination of social animus toward these communities paired with government policies that ranged from invidious discrimination to the outright denial of their fundamental rights as citizens because of their religious identity or beliefs.
This combination of social hostility and government repression is the breeding ground for religion-related violence of the worst kinds.
In Burma or Myanmar, as the military government renamed itself in 1989, the seeds of anti-Muslim animus were planted during the tenure of its first prime minister in 1960, who linked religion and ethnicity. In 1982, a new citizenship law stripped most Rohingya of their citizenship rights and rendered them stateless. They have been subject to restrictions of movement, education, and religious practice.
While there seemed to be a period of progress led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the work her National League for Democracy party seemed to embody, the anti-Muslim rhetoric was only increasing. Since 2012, religious hatred, intolerance, violence, and conflict have swept through Burma in an alarming way, coming—at least in part—from prejudices within the broader society in addition to the governmental restrictions.
The marginalization of and hostility toward the Rohingya—and not only the Rohingya, but the minority Christian communities in Chin and Kachin states as well—were fueled by violent Buddhist nationalists. The diplomatic engagement, which sought to encourage development in the country, failed to successfully engage on these religion-related questions in ways that could have prevented the atrocities of 2017.
The formal genocide designation from Secretary Blinken represents a vital time to hold to account those responsible for these atrocities. It provides an occasion and legal basis for the United States, United Nations, and ASEAN member states to take concrete steps to pursue justice.
Beyond the legal implications, there is also “the moral and emotional impact of the US government’s move,” as Wai Wai Nu reflected. “For many of us, it feels as though the pain and trauma of a generation are now being recognized in their entirety.”
Understanding the associated pain of these atrocities requires engaging deeply with the drivers behind them, including the particular ways in which religious freedom violations and other forms of marginalization and oppression set the stage for targeted violence.
As Secretary Blinken noted in his remarks, this is now the eighth genocide the United States has recognized since the Holocaust. Most recently, there was the 2021 designation of genocide by Secretary Mike Pompeo for atrocities committed by the Peoples Republic of China against the primarily Muslim Uyghur and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang, China. In 2016, Secretary John Kerry announced a genocide determination for the atrocities committed by ISIS against Yazidis, Christians, and others in Iraq and Syria.
In nearly every case, violations of religious freedom have been a significant factor in creating the conditions that marked the “path to genocide,” as Secretary Blinken described. Therefore, protecting religious freedom will be critical for those looking to walk with the “Rohingya on this path out of genocide—toward truth, toward accountability, toward a home that will welcome them as equal members, that will respect their human rights and dignity, alongside that of all people in Burma.”
For those looking to prevent the next spiral into genocidal violence, it is vital to pay close attention to protecting religious freedom—grounded in the foundational right of the equality and dignity of every person. When that right is routinely violated, it is a warning sign that must not be ignored.