WASHINGTON – A U.S. government investigation has found that Myanmar’s military waged a planned, coordinated campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the Southeast Asian nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
The State Department report, reviewed by Reuters ahead of its expected public release on Monday, could be used to justify further U.S. sanctions or other punitive measures against Myanmar authorities, said U.S. officials.
But it stopped short of describing the crackdown as genocide or crimes against humanity, an issue that other U.S. officials said was the subject of fierce internal debate that delayed the report’s roll-out for nearly a month.
The findings resulted from more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military campaign last year in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“The survey reveals that the recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” according to the 20-page report. “The scope and scale of the military’s operations indicate they were well-planned and coordinated.”
Survivors described in harrowing detail what they had witnessed, including soldiers killing infants and small children, the shooting of unarmed men, and victims buried alive or thrown into pits of mass graves. The described widespread sexual assault and rape by Myanmar’s military of Rohingya women, often carried out in public.
One witness described four Rohingya girls who were abducted, tied up with ropes and raped for three days. They were left heavily bleeding and “half dead,” he said, according to the report.
Human rights groups and Rohingya activists have put the death toll in the thousands from the crackdown, which was sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in August 2017.
The results of the U.S. investigation were released nearly a month after a team of U.N. investigators issued its own report accusing Myanmar’s military of acting with “genocidal intent” and calling for the country’s commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted for orchestrating the gravest crimes under international law.
The Aug. 27 report also said the civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has allowed hate speech to thrive, destroyed documents and failed to protect minorities from war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
A senior State Department official said the objective of the U.S. investigation was not to determine genocide but to document the atrocities to help guide future policy aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable.
The official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said it would be up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whether to make such a designation in the future and did not rule the possibility.
A declaration of genocide by the U.S. government, which has already labeled the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing,” could have legal implications of committing Washington to stronger punitive measures against Myanmar.
The U.S. report accused Myanmar’s military of targeting Rohingya civilians “indiscriminately and often with extreme brutality.”
“The stories from some refugees show a pattern of planning and pre-meditation in their villages on the part of the attackers,” it said, citing confiscation in advance of knives and other tools that could be used as weapons.
The State Department’s investigation was modeled on a U.S. forensic examination of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.
The Trump administration, which has been criticized by human rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers for a cautious response to Myanmar, could now face added pressure to take a tougher stand.
Any action could be tempered, however, by U.S. concerns about complicating Suu Kyi’s relationship with the powerful military and pushing Myanmar closer to China, Washington’s main regional rival.
The U.S. government on Aug. 17 imposed sanctions on four military and police commanders and two army units but Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was spared. Further U.S. sanctions have been under consideration for half a dozen other individuals and several military-run businesses, U.S. officials said earlier.
There appears to be little U.S. appetite, however, for the more drastic step of re-imposing broad economic sanctions lifted by former President Barack Obama as the country shifted from decades of direct military rule toward a democratic transition.
The Rohingya, who regard themselves as native to Rakhine state, are widely considered as interlopers by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and are denied citizenship.