Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have welcomed an announcement by the United States that it considers the violent repression of their largely Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar a genocide.
As news of the announcement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spread across the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar district that are now home to about a million Rohingya, many residents expressed their enthusiasm.
“We are very happy about the declaration of the genocide – many many thanks,” said 60-year-old Sala Uddin, who lives at Kutupalong camp.
“It has been 60 years starting from 1962 that the Myanmar government has been torturing us and many other communities including Rohingya,” he said. “I think a path to take action by the international community against Myanmar has opened up because of the declaration.”
The United States made the determination on Monday to call the repression a genocide based on confirmed accounts of mass atrocities on civilians by Myanmar’s military in a widespread and systematic campaign against the Rohingya, Blinken said in a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Myanmar’s military government, which has already been sued in the International Court of Justice on genocide charges, said it categorically rejected the US declaration.
Imtiaz Ahmed, director of the Center for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka, said the declaration was “a positive step”, but it would be important to see what actions and “concrete steps” follow.
“Just by saying that genocide has been committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya is not good enough. I think we need to see what would follow from that statement, ”Ahmed said.
He said it was too early to say how the new development would ensure the recognition of the Rohingya refugees, who have long been denied citizenship in Myanmar, and the fundamental questions remained on how and when they would go back to Myanmar.
He also said that going for harsh economic sanctions by the US against Myanmar could be the next outcome. He said it was also equally important to see whether the US would take interest in supporting the International Court of Justice in The Hague where Myanmar is facing a trial put forward by the African nation of The Gambia.
Myanmar’s government is already under multiple layers of US sanctions since a military coup ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021. Thousands of civilians throughout the country have been killed and imprisoned as part of the ongoing repression of anyone opposed to the ruling military government.
Currently, Bangladesh is hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military launched a crackdown against the mostly Muslim minority.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly said their repatriation to Myanmar is the solution to the crisis but the government would not force them to leave Bangladesh.
In its first official reaction following the US action, the foreign ministry of Myanmar’s military government firmly rejected the accusations. The statement issued on Tuesday evening charged that Blinken’s declaration was politically motivated and amounted to interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
However, a statement from Myanmar’s main opposition group, the National Unity Government, which considers itself to be the country’s legitimate administrative body, said it welcomed the US declaration.
The group was established by lawmakers who were not allowed to take their seats when the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The NUG acknowledges that discriminatory practices and rhetoric against the Rohingya also laid the groundwork for these atrocities,” said a statement issued in the name of the group’s acting president, Duwa Lashi La.
“The impunity enjoyed by the military’s leadership has since enabled their direction of countrywide crimes at the helm of an illegal military junta.”
“Justice and accountability must follow this determination,” it said.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday also welcomed the US declaration.
“It was a long time coming and it should have happened before, but we are very happy that it has in fact occurred,” the organization’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said.
Robertson said he believed the US announcement would generate greater support for legal moves against Myanmar at the ICJ: “It is a call for action now.”