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Secretary Antony J. Blinken on the Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity in Burma

March 21st, 2022  •  Author:   U.S. Department of State  •  18 minute read
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SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much, and good morning, everyone.  Stu, thank you for those very kind words, but also thank you for so many decades of extraordinary service to this country and to its ideals.

This is something of a sacred place for me.  Every time I walk through these doors, it has the same impact.  And so I’m grateful to Sara and her leadership of this institution; Naomi, who walked us through the extraordinary exhibit on the story, the plight of the Rohingya that we’ll be talking about today.  I urge everyone:  Come, see this.  Experience this.  It will speak incredibly powerful to you.

To the entire team behind this essential institution, behind the exhibit, thank you for your enduring efforts to teach us the darkest parts of history – and the work you’re doing to strive that the past does not become prologue.  It’s your efforts that make this museum a living memorial.  That is the incredible enduring power of this institution.

One of the unsettling truths of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is that there’s never a time I visit here when its lessons do not feel deeply resonant.  But I have to tell you, I can recall few times when that history felt so urgent, or the responsibility it imparts on all of us so pressing.

As we meet, the Russian Government continues to wage its unprovoked, brutal war on Ukraine. Each day brings more harrowing attacks, more innocent men, women, and children killed.

That includes the five people who were killed in a strike on March 1st, on a TV tower and the surrounding area on the outskirts of Kyiv, the same site where, just over 80 years ago, 33,771 Jews were killed by the Nazis in just 2 days.  Babyn Yar.

Ukraine is home to nearly 10,000 Holocaust survivors, including an 88-year-old woman, Natalia Berezhnaya of Odessa.  Here’s what she said in a recent interview, and I quote: “It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that in 1941, I had to hide in the basement of this building, and that I’m going to have to do that again now.”

The Kremlin has tried to justify this war by falsely claiming that it’s intervening to stop genocide, abusing the term that we reserve for the gravest atrocities, disrespecting every victim of this heinous crime.  Yet even as we are working to increase international pressure on the Kremlin to end this unjustified war, we know there are many other places in the world where horrific atrocities are being committed.  Over recent weeks, as I’ve spoken with diplomats from around the world about Ukraine, I’ve also heard a constant refrain.  Many of them say, “Yes, we stand with the people of Ukraine.  But we must also stand with the people suffering atrocities in other places.”

Like Xinjiang, where the Chinese Government continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups.  Like the atrocities committed in the conflict in Ethiopia by all parties to that conflict, as well as by Eritrean forces.  And like the recent flare-up in Darfur, Sudan, which raises alarming echoes of past acts of genocide by Bashir’s government forces and the Janjaweed. Standing with victims of atrocities is what brings me here today.

One of my responsibilities as Secretary is determining, on behalf of the United States, whether atrocities have been committed.  It’s an immense responsibility that I take very seriously, particularly given my family’s history.

Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times.  Today marks the eighth, as I have determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.

It’s a decision that I reached based on reviewing a factual assessment and legal analysis prepared by the State Department, which included detailed documentation by a range of independent, impartial sources, including human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as our own rigorous fact-finding.

Among those sources was a joint report, published in November 2017, by the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the human rights group, Fortify Rights; and the museum’s determination, in December 2018, that there is compelling evidence that Burmese military committed crimes against humanity and genocide against Rohingya.

Given the gravity of this determination, it was also important that this administration conduct its own analysis of the facts and the law.  (Inaudible) instances, the military used similar tactics targeting Rohingya: the razing of villages, killing, rape, torture, and other horrific abuses.

The military’s attacks in 2016 forced nearly 100,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.  In 2017, attacks killed more than 9,000 Rohingya, and forced more than 740,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Let me take a moment to share some findings of this report, because they are a key part of how I arrived at my own determination.

The report was based on a survey of more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, all of whom were displaced by the violence in 2016 or 2017.  Three-quarters of those interviewed said that they personally witnessed members of the military kill someone.  More than half witnessed acts of sexual violence.  One in five witnessed a mass-casualty event – that is, the killing or injuring of more than 100 people in a single incident.

These percentages matter.  They demonstrate that these abuses were not isolated cases.  The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic, which is crucial for reaching a determination of crimes against humanity.

The evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities – the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part.  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.

Intent is evident in the racial slurs shouted by members of the Burmese military as they attacked Rohingya, the widespread attack on mosques, the desecration of Korans.

Intent is evident in the soldiers who bragged about their plans on social media, such as a lieutenant in the 33rd Light Infantry Division who, as he was deployed to Rakhine State in August 2017, wrote on his Facebook page, and I quote: “If they’re Bengali, they’ll be killed.”   His unit is among those reported to have committed atrocities.

Intent is evident in public comments by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese military, who was overseeing the operation.  On September 1, 2017, as soldiers were razing villages, killing, torturing, raping men, women, and children, he said this, and I quote: “The Bengali problem was a longstanding one that has become an unfinished job… The government in office is taking great care in solving it,” end quote.

This is the same man who, in 2021, would lead the military coup to overthrow Burma’s democratically-elected government, and who currently heads its repressive regime.

Intent is evident in the preparatory steps that soldiers took in the days leading up to the atrocities.  In the village of Maung Nu, for example, soldiers started by confiscating Rohingyas’ kitchen knives and machetes.  Then they imposed a curfew.  Then they tied pieces of red cloth outside the homes of Rohingya and at a local mosque.  And then, only then, did the killing start.

Intent is evident in the military’s efforts to prevent Rohingya from escaping, like soldiers blocking exits to villages before they began their attacks, sinking boats full of men, women, and children as they tried to flee to Bangladesh.  This demonstrates the military’s intent went beyond ethnic cleansing to the actual destruction of Rohingya.

Percentages, numbers, patterns, intent: these are critically important to reach the determination of genocide.  But at the same time, we must remember that behind each of these numbers are countless individual acts of cruelty and inhumanity.

Nura, a mother of four, begged soldiers not to rape her in front of her children, but she said, “They did what they wanted to my body.”

Harsa’s 12-year-old son was torn from her arms and forced to lie face down in front of her before soldiers began to stomp on his head and neck.

It’s painful to even read these accounts.  And I ask you, I ask each and every one of you listening, put yourself in their place.  Imagine this was your own child.  Imagine.  These stories force us to reckon with the immeasurable pain wrought by every heinous abuse.

That pain ripples outward, from the individual victims and survivors to loved ones, to friends, to entire communities.  That is something I saw with my own step-father, Samuel Pisar, who carried with him the loss of his mother, his father, his little sister, and the horrors he’d experienced in the Holocaust, for the rest of his life.

We also must remember these individuals as more than victims, but rather as whole human beings, as mothers, as fathers, as sons, daughters.

People like Jomila and her 15-year-old son, Jahingir, whose story is part of the exhibit that I saw just a little while ago.  Jahingir was one of dozens of Rohingya executed by soldiers in August 2017. (1) He was a boy with bright, inquisitive eyes, a dedicated student, who always had a book in his hand.

When soldiers arrived at his village, he hid his books, fearing soldiers would steal them.  After he was killed, his mother carried those books with her as she fled to Bangladesh.  She still carries them today.

Jomila is one Rohingya mother who lost a child.  Out of thousands.

There’s another fundamental lesson in the Holocaust Museum’s powerful exhibit, which is found in its title: “Burma’s Path” – Burma’s Path – “to Genocide.”  That’s the groundwork for genocide, the fact that it is laid far in advance, over years, even decades, through a steady process of dehumanization and demonization.

For example, tomorrow, March 22nd, is the day that the Nazis opened their first concentration camp, in Dachau, just 10 miles from Munich.  That occurred in 1933, a dozen years – a dozen years – before my stepfather would be sent to that camp after his time in Majdanek and Auschwitz.

The museum’s exhibit that I toured shows us the long path to genocide in Burma, how Rohingya, who had been an integral part of Burma’s society for generations, saw their rights, saw their citizenship methodically stripped away.

In 1962, when the military staged its first coup, it canceled all Rohingya-language programming on the state-run broadcasting service.

In 1978, when the military used a nationwide campaign to register so-called foreigners as a pretext to terrorize Rohingya, forcing more than 200,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

In 1991, when soldiers carried out killings, rapes, massive destruction of Rohingya communities as part of the military’s so-called “Clean and Beautiful Nation,” driving an additional 250,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The path is a familiar one, mirroring in so many ways the path to the Holocaust and other genocides.

We see it in the segregation of Rohingya into internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine State, the requirement that all Rohingya households register with the government.

We see it in Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, which effectively excluded Rohingya from citizenship and denied them full political rights, echoing the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their German citizenship.

We see parallels in the dehumanizing hate speech.  Rohingya were compared to fleas, to thorns, to an invasive species, just at Tutsis were compared to cockroaches, and Jews to rats and parasites.

Understanding the contours of this path is a core part of the Holocaust Museum’s mission.  It’s crucial to all of us who are committed to living up to the maxim of “Never again.”  By learning to spot the signs of the worst atrocities, we’re empowered to prevent them.

And while today’s determination of genocide and crimes against humanity is focused on Rohingya, it’s also important to recognize that for decades the Burmese military has committed killings, rape, and other atrocities against members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.  Reports of these abuses are widespread; they’re well documented.  They’ve occurred in states across Burma.  That history, and the determination we’re making today, are fundamental to understanding Burma’s current crisis.

Many of the military leaders who oversaw the genocidal campaign against Rohingya, including the general who led it, were also involved in abuses committed against other ethnic and religious minority groups.  They’re the same military leaders who overthrew Burma’s democratically elected government on February 1st, 2021 and seized power.  Since the coup, we’ve seen the Burmese military use many of the same tactics, only now the military is targeting anyone it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule: student protestors, pro-democracy activists, striking workers, journalists, health workers.

Twenty-two-year-old Thinzar Hein was a nursing student who went to protests to provide medical care to the wounded.  On March 28, 2021, she was tending to three injured people at a protest in Monywa when soldiers approached and shot her in the head.

On December 24th, 2021, the military massacred at least 35 people, including women, children, two humanitarian aid workers in Kayah State, and then burned their bodies.  According to a doctor who examined the bodies, almost every victim’s skull was fractured.

Since seizing power, the military has killed more than 1,670 men, women, and children, and unjustly detained at least 12,800 more in abysmal conditions.

The similarities in these atrocities underscore a fundamental truth of this museum and of history: People who are willing to commit atrocities against one group of people can swiftly be turned against another.  This is the warning of the well-known poem by Martin Niemöller on the walls of this museum, which begins, as so many of us know, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”

And for those who did not realize it before the coup, the brutal violence that has followed has made clear that there is no one the Burmese military won’t come for.  No one is safe from atrocities under its rule.  And so more people in Burma now recognize that ending this crisis, restoring the path to democracy, starts with ensuring the human rights of all people in the country, including Rohingya.

The similarities also matter for the purpose of truth and accountability, something the United States has been working toward since the abuses occurred and continues to do to this day.  The passage of time does not diminish this responsibility; if anything, it only makes our quest more urgent.

We strongly supported the UN Fact Finding Mission for Myanmar, and we’re doing the same for its successor, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, as it collects, preserves, and analyzes evidence of the most serious international crimes in Burma.  We’re providing a wide range of support, including information, resources.  And today, I can announce that we’re also contributing nearly a million dollars in additional funding.

We have also shared information with The Gambia in connection with the case it has filed against Burma under the Genocide Convention at the International Court of Justice for the atrocities committed against Rohingya.

Even as we lay the foundation for future accountability, we’re also working to stop the military’s ongoing atrocities, press for the release of all those unjustly detained, support the people of Burma as they strive to put the country back on the track to democracy.

Alongside allies and partners, we’re imposing significant costs on the leaders who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities.  We’ve imposed targeted sanctions on 65 individuals, including top military commanders, senior officials, their family members.  We’ve applied sanctions or export controls on 26 entities that were either implicated in human rights abuses or generate revenue for the military and its leaders.  And we’ve prevented the regime from plundering Burma’s overseas reserves.

In June 2021, we’ve led efforts at the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution calling on member states to stop the flow of arms into Burma, which 119 countries supported and only one voted against.  And in January, we joined 35 nations in calling for an end to the provision of all arms, materiel, and technical assistance to the Burmese military.  All governments have a responsibility to keep the pressure on – a report released last month by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma found that China, Russia, and Serbia have all continued to supply the regime with weapons used against civilians since the coup.

We’re working closely with our allies and partners – in Asia, around Europe, at the G7, the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – to deny the regime the international access and credibility it craves.

We’re supporting ASEAN’s efforts to end the regime’s violence and seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis through its Five-Point Consensus, and we appreciate the work of ASEAN’s special envoy, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who arrived in Burma today for his first visit as envoy.  The foreign minister’s experience – and that of his country in enduring a genocide – gives crucial perspective on the issues at hand.

The United States also continues to provide significant support to help meet the immediate humanitarian needs of Rohingya and all affected by their persecution – nearly $1.6 billion since 2017 for everything from shelter and education, specialized mental health and psychosocial support for the victims of trauma.

I want to recognize the exceptional generosity of Bangladesh in hosting over 900,000 Rohingya refugees, including its recent efforts to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya as part of its national COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

I’ve spoken today about the path to genocide.  But let me close by saying something about the path out of genocide.

Today’s determination is one step on that path as it tells Rohingya, and victims in particular, that the United States government recognizes the gravity of the atrocities committed against them.  And it affirms Rohingyas’ human rights and dignity, something the Burmese military has tried to destroy.

In the wake of the coup, we’ve seen growing solidarity with Rohingya across Burma, including an important commitment by the “National Unity Government” to ensure that the human rights of Rohingya – and of all ethnic and religious minority groups – are respected.

Of course, the path out of genocide also runs through justice.  And while today that justice may feel elusive, to look around this room is to get a sense of just how determined people are to end the Burmese military’s decades-long impunity.  And there are many of us.

Rohingya activists who have dedicated their lives to defending the rights of members of their community, several of whom are here today.  And thank you for being with us.

Local and international human rights organizations, which have spent years documenting atrocities against Rohingya and other ethnic and religious groups in Burma.

Members of the United States Congress, who have demonstrated sustained bipartisan leadership in condemning the atrocities committed against Rohingya, providing humanitarian assistance, supporting the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma.

And of course, the courageous Rohingya survivors who have been willing to come forward to share their stories, to provide accounts of what they experienced.

The case files are growing.  The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar alone has collected more than 1.5 million items of evidence and information, including witness testimonies, documents, messages, photos, videos, geospatial imagery, social media pages.

Efforts are moving forward, not only at the International Court of Justice, but also through the International Criminal Court and through the domestic courts of Argentina, in a case brought under universal jurisdiction.

The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them.

Ultimately, the path out of genocide also leads home.  Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees released a report based on interviews with thousands of Rohingya refugees across the region.  It found that, despite all they have endured, despite decades of being told they do not belong, two out of three Rohingya refugees still want to be able to return home to Burma one day – as long as they can do it safely, with dignity, with human rights, which is not possible now.

And so, with today’s determination, the United States reaffirms its broader commitment to accompany 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.

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

(1) Jahingir was one of dozens of Rohingya who were executed by soldiers in the village of Maung Nu in August 2017.

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