Special Report: Pompeo rejected US bid to declare 'genocide' in Myanmar on eve of coup
In the last days of the Trump administration, some U.S. officials urged outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to formally declare that the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya minority was a genocide.
Such a determination, a culmination of years of State Department investigation and legal analysis, would send a signal that the generals would not enjoy impunity for their persecution of the Muslim group since 2017, the officials hoped.
Pompeo never made that call. Less than two weeks after he left office on Jan. 20, Myanmar’s generals seized power in a coup.
The 11th-hour scramble inside the State Department underscores how the United States struggled to formulate consistent policy toward Myanmar after the military began opening the country a decade ago.
Officials say Washington’s ability to influence events in Myanmar is limited, and U.S. policy was not the only factor that influenced the military’s decision to seize back power.
But the failure to condemn the slaughter of the Rohingya in the strongest terms available was a missed opportunity to have “a moderating” effect on the generals, said Morse Tan, who backed a genocide determination on Myanmar as head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department.
“Maybe (the coup) would have happened anyways, but I think it would have at least been a significant weight in the direction towards prevention and deterrence,” Tan said.
Pompeo, as secretary of state, had the sole authority to make a genocide determination. Tan said Pompeo never explained why he declined to do so.
Spokespeople for Pompeo did not reply to repeated emails seeking comment for this story, and they did not make him available for an interview.
Reuters calls to a Myanmar military spokesman were not answered. The army has said it was conducting counter-terrorism operations. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now detained by the military, previously denied that the acts constituted genocide.
Reuters spoke to 18 current and former U.S. officials who worked on U.S.-Myanmar policy. The interviews showed how officials across two administrations argued over how to balance accountability for Myanmar’s military - internationally condemned for its abuses against civilians - and the need for continued engagement with a country that had made nascent steps toward democracy.