A US government investigation has found that Myanmar’s military waged a planned, co-ordinated campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the South East 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 US sanctions or other punitive measures against Myanmar authorities, said US officials.
But it stopped short of describing the crackdown as genocide or crimes against humanity, an issue that other US 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 neighbouring 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. They 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 US investigation were released nearly a month after UN investigators issued their 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 under international law.
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 US investigation was not to determine genocide but to document the atrocities to guide future policy aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable.
The official, speaking 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 out the possibility.
A declaration of genocide by the US government, which has already labeled the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing,” could have legal implications of committing Washington to stronger punitive measures against Myanmar.
The US 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,” it said, citing confiscation in advance of knives and other tools that could be used as weapons.
About 80 percent of refugees surveyed said they witnessed a killing, most often by military or police, and usually by gunfire or knife, according to the report.
Some victims were mutilated or tortured. “Reports of mutilation included the cutting and spreading of entrails, severed limbs or hands/feet, pulling out nails or burning beards and genitals to force a confession, or being burned alive,” the report said.
In a few cases, witnesses said Rohingya were either killed in pits bulldozed by the military or buried alive.
The State Department’s investigation was modeled on a US forensic examination of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a US declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.
The Trump administration, which has been criticiSed by human rights groups and some US lawmakers for a cautious response to Myanmar, could now face added pressure to take a tougher stand.
Any action could be tempered, however, by US concerns about complicating relations between Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, with the powerful military and pushing Myanmar closer to China, Washington’s main regional rival.
The US government on August 17 imposed sanctions on four military and police commanders and two army units but Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was spared. Further US sanctions have been under consideration, US officials said earlier.
There appears to be little US appetite, however, for 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.
Meanwhile, the British and French foreign ministers co-hosted a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly about the crisis and called for urgent actions to be taken by the international community.
Jeremy Hunt and Jean-Yves Le Drian were joined by diplomats and ministers from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Turkey and the US.