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ERLC applauds U.S. genocide designation in Myanmar

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WASHINGTON (BP) – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission welcomed the Biden administration’s determination that the Myanmar military has committed genocide against the Rohingya ethnic group.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday (March 21) the designation of “genocide and crimes against humanity” for the campaign against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military forces, known as the Tatmadaw. It is the eighth time the United States has made a genocide determination since the Holocaust, Blinken said.

The military in Myanmar, a country formerly known as Burma, intensified its decades-long repression of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya in the southwestern state of Rakhine with a campaign of violent attacks in 2016 and 2017. Nearly 1 million registered refugees had fled to Bangladesh at the end of 2020, and others have escaped to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) urged the Trump administration in August 2020 to designate the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya as genocide. In a letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ERLC led 31 other organizations in asking the State Department “to demonstrate international leadership in defending the lives, religious freedom, and property rights of the Rohingya people by designating the prolonged military aggression a genocide.”

Chelsea Sobolik, the ERLC’s director of public policy, described Blinken’s genocide designation for Myanmar’s military as “a critical moment in our nation.”

“The [Myanmar] government has repeatedly and systematically violated the human rights of ethnic minorities by suppressing religious freedom, arbitrarily arresting and torturing civilians, and attacking innocent women and children,” she told Baptist Press in written comments Tuesday (March 22).

“A genocide designation at this time, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, helps in bringing much-needed attention and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya.”

USCIRF, a bipartisan panel that had called for a genocide designation since 2017, also praised the announcement.

This determination provides recognition to the Rohingya and acknowledges the severity of the atrocities that occurred, which is an important step towards achieving justice,” USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza said in a written statement.

The Myanmar military, which began its repression of the Rohingya 60 years ago, intensified its attacks against them in recent years with “mass killings and rapes,” according to USCIRF.

A report compiled by the Biden administration shows “the abuses were not isolated cases,” Blinken said in a speech Monday at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. “The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic, which is crucial for reaching a determination of crimes against humanity.

“The evidence also points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities – the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part.”

Genocide is defined as murder and other acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” according to a 1948 United Nations treaty.

The Tatmadaw has not reserved its violent campaign just for the Rohingya. It “has committed killings, rape and other atrocities against members of other ethnic and religious minority groups” for decades, Blinken said.

In February 2021, the military seized control of Myanmar’s democratically elected government. Since the takeover, the Tatmadaw has repeated its anti-Rohingya tactics against “all ethnic and religious communities,” USCIRF reported.

Buddhism is Myanmar’s “de facto state religion,” USCIRF said in its 2021 annual report. Nearly 88 percent of the population is Buddhist, while 6.2 percent is Christian and 4.3 percent is Muslim, according to USCIRF.

Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia, is one of 10 governments the State Department has designated as “countries of particular concern,” a category dedicated to the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom.

In June 2021, the United States led a successful attempt – which was joined by 119 other countries and opposed by only one government – to adopt a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly that urged members to halt the transfer of weapons into Myanmar, Blinken said. A report in February by a U.N. official showed China, Russia and Serbia still have provided arms to the military regime, he said.

Prior to the designation for Myanmar, the most recent genocide determination was issued in January 2021 against the Chinese Communist Party for its campaign against the Uyghurs, a primarily Muslim group in western China. Pompeo announced on the last full day of the Trump administration the genocide determination for China, and Blinken affirmed that designation after he took office under President Biden.

The Southern Baptist Convention became the first Christian denomination to denounce China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide by vote of the messengers to its annual meeting in June 2021.