WASHINGTON/COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) • The US government is conducting an intensive examination of alleged atrocities against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims, in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar's military for crimes against humanity, US officials say.
The undertaking, led by the State Department, has involved 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 crackdown last year in Myanmar's north-western Rakhine state, two US officials said.
The work is modelled on a US forensic investigation 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 interviews were conducted last and this month by about 20 investigators with backgrounds in international law and criminal justice, including some who worked on tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the US officials said.
The information will be analysed in Washington and documented in a report to be sent to the State Department's leadership next month or in early June, the officials said.
It is unclear whether the Trump administration will publicly release the findings, which document accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offences, or whether they will be used to justify new sanctions on the Myanmar government or a recommendation for international prosecution.
"The purpose of this investigation is to contribute to justice processes, including community awareness raising, international advocacy efforts, and community-based reconciliation efforts, as well as possible investigations, truth-seeking efforts, or other efforts for justice and accountability," said a document used by the investigators and reviewed by Reuters.
Three US officials in Washington and several people involved in the investigation in the sprawling refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar district in southern Bangladesh disclosed details of the fact-finding operation .
The investigators have received names of individual perpetrators and the identities of specific battalions allegedly involved, another source said.
A State Department official, asked to confirm the specifics of the investigation, said "the programme details are accurate".
Ms Zohra Khatun, 35, a Rohingya refugee in the camps, said she told investigators that soldiers waged a campaign of violence and harassment in her village in Rakhine starting last August. They made arrests and shot several people, driving her and others to flee, she said.
"One military officer grabbed me by the throat and tried to take me," she said. The military, she said, burned homes in the village, including hers.
The Myanmar government and military did not respond to questions.
Myanmar has said its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.
The Rohingya are a small Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Though they have been present in what is now Myanmar for generations, many Burmese consider them to be interlopers. Violence against them has increased in recent years as the country has made a partial shift to democratic governance.
The investigation coincides with a debate inside the US government and on Capitol Hill over whether the Trump administration has done enough to hold Myanmar's military to account for brutal violence against the largely stateless Rohingya.
In October last year, the European Union decided to shun Myanmar generals over the operation in Rakhine state, which the United Nations denounces as ethnic cleansing. Yangon rejects these accusations.
Following the lead of the UN and the EU, then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted "ethnic cleansing", a designation that raised the possibility of additional sanctions against Myanmar's military commanders and increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The following month, the US imposed targeted sanctions on one Myanmar general and threatened to penalise others.
Washington has also scaled back already-limited military ties with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began.
Human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers in Washington have urged the Republican White House to widen sanctions and designate the violence as "crimes against humanity", a legal term that can set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
"No decisions have been made on that front, but it's something being looked at very carefully," a senior Trump administration official said.
Meanwhile, the EU will extend its arms embargo on Myanmar for another year this week and may then move to target more Yangon generals with fresh sanctions, EU diplomats and officials said.