Spotlight - Myanmar: March 31, 2022

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s determination on March 21, 2022, that the “clearance operations” conducted by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya in 2017 constituted acts of genocide was a long overdue and much welcomed decision. The imposition of additional sanctions of a few individuals and organizations on March 25, 2022, was also good news. However, if the determination does not result in more significant changes in U.S. policy toward Myanmar, Blinken’s announcement is meaningless.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide requires that “Contracting Parties,” which includes the United States:

undertake to enact, in accordance with their respective Constitutions, the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention, and, in particular, to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III.

In 1987, then-senator Joe Biden introduced the required legislation, the Genocide Convention Implementation Act, also known as the Proxmire Act, which Congress passed in 1988. The law has been subsequently amended and has been codified as “18 U.S. Code § 1091 – Genocide.”

The specified punishment for genocide under this act is “death or imprisonment for life and a fine of not more than $1,000,000, or both” in cases where the genocidal acts involved people dying. Clearly in the case of the Myanmar military’s attack on the Rohingya, many innocent people died.

The law also indicates under what circumstances the United States has jurisdiction. These include cases where “the offense is committed in whole or in part within the United States;” or the alleged offenders are U.S. citizens, permanent residents of the United States or “a stateless person whose habitual residence is in the United States.” The United States also has jurisdiction if the alleged offender is “present in the United States.”

In his statement of March 21, 2022, Secretary Blinken summarized the actions currently being taken by the U.S. government to undermine the military regime in Myanmar, support the pro-democracy movement, and ensure some form of accountability for those military officers responsible for acts of genocide against the Rohingya and Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities. However, he did not announce any new or additional measures being taken as a consequence of the determination of genocide.

In a recent CSIS commentary, I suggested some changes that should be made in U.S. policy in Myanmar in light of the coup and the escalating civil war. The changes included broader and stricter sanctions on Myanmar’s military, military and non-military assistance to the pro-democracy forces defending the people of Myanmar and fighting for democracy, and assisting the National Unity Consultative Council in its efforts to negotiate the basic provisions of a future federal democracy and the transition to a new democratic government. Secretary Blinken’s announcement was an excellent opportunity to announce one or more of these initiatives.

Fortunately, it is not too late for the Biden administration or Congress to demonstrate that the determination of genocide is more than just words. The United States needs to undertake the types of measures that I proposed to end Myanmar’s brutal military dictatorship and help the people of Myanmar in their struggle to establish an authentic, democratic federal republic that respects the rights of all of its people, regardless of ethnicity, race, or religious beliefs.

Michael Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.​

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program