WASHINGTON – (WARSOOR) – In the last days of the Trump administration, some U.S. officials urged outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to formally declare that the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya minority was a genocide.
Such a determination, a culmination of years of State Department investigation and legal analysis, would send a signal that the generals would not enjoy impunity for their persecution of the Muslim group since 2017, the officials hoped.
Pompeo never made that call. Less than two weeks after he left office on Jan. 20, Myanmar’s generals seized power in a coup.
The 11th-hour scramble inside the State Department underscores how the United States struggled to formulate consistent policy toward Myanmar after the military began opening the country a decade ago.
Officials say Washington’s ability to influence events in Myanmar is limited, and U.S. policy was not the only factor that influenced the military’s decision to seize back power.
But the failure to condemn the slaughter of the Rohingya in the strongest terms available was a missed opportunity to have “a moderating” effect on the generals, said Morse Tan, who backed a genocide determination on Myanmar as head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department.
“Maybe (the coup) would have happened anyways, but I think it would have at least been a significant weight in the direction towards prevention and deterrence,” Tan said.
Pompeo, as secretary of state, had the sole authority to make a genocide determination. Tan said Pompeo never explained why he declined to do so.
Spokespeople for Pompeo did not reply to repeated emails seeking comment for this story, and they did not make him available for an interview.
Reuters calls to a Myanmar military spokesman were not answered. The army has said it was conducting counter-terrorism operations. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now detained by the military, previously denied that the acts constituted genocide.
Reuters spoke to 18 current and former U.S. officials who worked on U.S.-Myanmar policy. The interviews showed how officials across two administrations argued over how to balance accountability for Myanmar’s military – internationally condemned for its abuses against civilians – and the need for continued engagement with a country that had made nascent steps toward democracy.
U.S. officials often disagreed on whether a tough response might backfire and end up weakening the hand of Myanmar’s civilian government without improving conditions for the Rohingya.
That debate came to a head during a State Department examination of the military’s bloody 2017 campaign that pushed at least 730,000 members of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority into neighboring Bangladesh.
The State Department in 2018 conducted a months-long examination process, officials said. It hired outside lawyers, the people said, to gather evidence of the army’s atrocities and to analyze whether those actions constituted “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” – offenses that ultimately could be charged in international courts.
At the time, the United States had referred to events in Myanmar as “ethnic cleansing,” a descriptive term that cannot be used to prosecute perpetrators. A U.S. determination of genocide, in particular, carries a lot of weight, according to officials and rights advocates who hoped such a call would rally global support to hold the generals accountable. The United Nations defines genocide as acts such as pogroms and forced sterilizations intended to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
Calling the events genocide would be a major boost for hundreds of thousands of survivors living in refugee camps, said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya former political prisoner and activist. “They will feel like their suffering, the crimes that happened against them, have been recognized,” she said.
Officials told Reuters that the process, after months of work, ended abruptly in August 2018 because Pompeo became enraged after details of the deliberations leaked.
These people said policy toward Myanmar was often overshadowed by the Trump administration’s top foreign policy priority: China. Some State Department officials argued that punishing Myanmar for the army’s atrocities would push the country into China’s orbit.
In 2020, as ties between the United States and China became increasingly adversarial, Pompeo tasked the department to make an atrocity determination for Beijing’s persecution of Uighurs and other Muslims in its western Xinjiang province. United Nations experts say a million Muslims are detained in camps and are subjected to numerous abuses, including forced sterilizations, which China has denied.
In a previously unreported effort, some State Department officials said they encouraged Pompeo to take a fresh look at Myanmar in a parallel process in mid-2020. They argued that atrocities there were well-documented and had been going on for years. If the State Department leveled a genocide determination against China, a geopolitical rival, but failed to do so with Myanmar, officials said the administration could face criticism about its determination being politically motivated.
Ultimately, Pompeo declared a genocide was taking place in China. But he made no atrocity determination for Myanmar, despite new evidence that State Department lawyers said justified the genocide label there, several former U.S. officials familiar with the process, including Trump-era appointees, told Reuters.
Aides who worked with Pompeo at the State Department said he would have weighed a broad range of factors in making his decision.
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