This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Nahal Toosi on politico.com August 13, 2018.
A US State Department investigation has found that Myanmar’s military exhibited “premeditation and coordination” ahead of a slaughter of Rohingya Muslims last year in one of the decade’s most horrifying mass atrocities.
But days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to deliver a speech on the subject, the US President Donald Trump’s administration has apparently not yet decided whether to call it a “genocide”.
Draft excerpts from a Pompeo statement obtained exclusively by POLITICO include the bracketed phrase “hold for determination” in a passage that will offer Pompeo’s conclusion about how to describe the vicious campaign against one of Myanmar’s most vulnerable ethnic minority groups.
That conclusion has been the subject of intense debate within the Trump administration, officials say. Declaring a genocide – typically defined as a premeditated effort to wipe out some or all of a specific ethnic or religious group – could commit the US to punitive steps toward a country in which Trump has shown little interest.
State Department officials expect Pompeo to issue the statement later this week, ahead of the Aug 25 one-year anniversary of the Myanmar bloodshed, which left thousands of Rohingya dead and prompted around 700,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. It’s not clear whether the draft excerpts, which describe the investigation’s findings, are from Pompeo’s planned speech or a separate public message.
Rohingya Muslims have faced persecution for decades in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. Investigators hired by the State Department gathered testimonies from survivors who described seeing villages torched, children tossed into rivers and flames, and women gang-raped, the draft excerpts say.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the investigation’s findings or any upcoming Pompeo’s statement. A Trump administration official warned that the draft text, which is marked “sensitive but unclassified”, could still change as State Department and White House officials jockey over the outcome, a process that has already entailed tense meetings and many a frustrated email.
The US has often avoided labelling atrocities “genocide”, in part because doing so could in theory oblige the US under international law to intervene, especially if the violence is ongoing. An international convention on genocide, to which the US is a party, declares genocide to be “a crime under international law” that the nations who signed the document “undertake to prevent and to punish”.
Thus far, the State Department has described what happened to the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing”, which has little weight in international law.
One prominent official who appears to support declaring a genocide is the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Sam Brownback. He is supported by many officials in State’s human rights bureau.
The State Department’s legal division, on the other hand, opposes the label “genocide” because it’s not convinced the US can clearly establish the Myanmar military’s intent, according to the administration official. That office is supported by officials in the department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau who are concerned about a possibly counterproductive effect on US relations with Myanmar, a country under hybrid civilian-military rule that American officials hope to move out of China’s orbit.
Supporters of a genocide ruling point to former Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to apply the word to Islamic State brutality against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria. The Trump administration has endorsed that Barack Obama-era decision.
It’s not clear whether Pompeo will release the full State Department report of its investigation’s findings. But the draft excerpts provided to POLITICO are unsparing in describing accounts by more than 1,000 Rohingya survivors scattered in decrepit refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The survivors described actions by Myanmar’s armed forces that were “widespread, systematic and extreme”, the draft excerpts state. Women, the elderly were often treated the most brutally – along with small children.
“Soldiers threw infants and small children in open fires, rivers, wells and burning huts,” the draft excerpts state. “One refugee reported that a soldier threw an infant in the air and impaled it on a long sword.”
In addition to the interviews, the department’s investigation also relied on its internal Bureau of Intelligence and Research, as well as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyses satellite data. Such data has been used in other investigations to document the destruction of Rohingya villages.
The findings largely echo those of investigations carried out by human rights groups, journalists and others over the past year.
A key factor is the alleged planning that Myanmar’s military conducted before the violence began.
Myanmar’s government insists it merely responded to an Aug 25 Rohingya insurgent attack on its security forces. But the State Department found evidence that plans for a crackdown began months earlier.
“In the months prior to the August attacks, security forces detained men and abducted women. Rohingya were subject to restrictions on freedom of movement, and in some cases the military removed fences and confiscated farming tools, knives and other objects – anything that could be used for self-defence,” according to the draft excerpts. “A few refugees reported that authorities instructed villagers from other ethnic groups to leave the area prior to the attacks.”
If Pompeo stops short of using the term “genocide”, officials and activists expect him to accuse Myanmar’s military of “crimes against humanity”, which carries less rhetorical and legal force than does genocide.
Still, human rights activists say even that label can be helpful in building future criminal cases against the perpetrators.
Regardless of what term Pompeo chooses to use, it is highly unlikely the US will militarily intervene in Myanmar to protect the Rohingya left there. If Trump were inclined to use force, it would be a punitive action: Most of Myanmar’s Rohingya are now believed to be across the border in Bangladesh and the violence against them has subsided.
The moral, legal and rhetorical weight of the word “genocide” has tied past administrations into knots.
As hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis were being murdered in 1994, Clinton administration officials avoided the term – in part, according to a then-secret memo, because they worried it would commit the US to “actually ‘do something’”.
But when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called the relentless killings in Sudan’s Darfur region a genocide in 2004, it was after his aides decided that using the term “would have no immediate legal – as opposed to moral, political or policy – consequences for the United States”.
The State Department used 18 “highly qualified investigators” from 11 countries to interview Rohingya survivors. They generated more than 15,000 pages of data, according to the draft excerpts. The methodology, according to the excerpts, was “rigorous” and used a “random sample approach” employed in past investigations of atrocities.
According to the draft excerpts, Pompeo calls on Myanmar’s leaders to “cease denying that atrocities occurred” and to remove all military commanders involved in the crackdown. He further indirectly suggests that the country’s leaders amend their constitution to bring the military under civilian control.
Myanmar was ruled for decades by a military junta. During the Obama administration, the country shifted to a degree of civilian rule, led by democracy icon and former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Obama lifted sanctions on the country and paid two visits there to improve relations.
Today, however, Suu Kyi and other Myanmar civilian leaders still have limited influence, and they have been sharply criticised for their muted response to the military’s actions against the Rohingya, a group widely despised even among ordinary citizens of Myanmar.
Concerns about undermining Myanmar’s civilian leaders have kept key US officials and lawmakers from supporting harsh new penalties on the Southeast Asian country over the Rohingya crisis. So far, the US has imposed economic sanctions on only one Myanmar military official. Human rights activists hope that Pompeo will announce new sanctions on more of those officials in the coming days.