The United States officially declared Monday that violence against the Rohingya committed by Myanmar's military amounted to genocide, saying there was clear evidence of an attempt to "destroy" the Muslim minority.

Citing the killings of thousands and forcing close to a million to flee the country in 2016 and 2017, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had "determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya."

"The military's intent went beyond ethnic cleansing to the actual destruction of Rohingya," Blinken said at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"The attack against Rohingya was widespread and systematic, which is crucial for reaching a determination of crimes against humanity."

The US move did not come with new direct repercussions against the already heavily sanctioned Myanmar regime and dozens of members of its leadership.

But Blinken said it will support international efforts, including in the International Court of Justice, to bring cases of crimes against humanity against the regime.

Blinken noted 2017 remarks by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, that the government was "solving" an "unfinished job" in its destruction of Rohingya communities.

Blinken added that Min Aung Hlaing led the 2021 coup overthrowing the elected government of Myanmar.

"The brutal violence unleashed by the military since February 2021 has made clear that no one in Burma will be safe from atrocities so long as it is in power," Blinken said, using the former official name of the country.

"Anyone in Burma seen as challenging the military's grip on power -- regardless of ethnicity or religion, age or political party -- will be targeted," he said.

Around 850,000 Rohingya are languishing in camps in neighboring Bangladesh, recounting mass killings and rape of the campaign that was launched against them five years ago.

Another 600,000 members of the community remain in Myanmar's Rakhine state where they report widespread oppression.

Hundreds of thousands of the mostly Muslim Rohingya community have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since 2017
Hundreds of thousands of the mostly Muslim Rohingya community have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since 2017 AFP / AZWAR IPANK

The US declaration was cautiously welcomed by activists and members of the beleaguered community.

"This should have been done way before. However I believe the US decision will help the ICJ process for the Rohingya," said one displaced member of the community at a camp near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine.

Thin Thin Hlaing, a Rohingya rights activist, also welcomed the US move.

"I feel like we were living through a blackout but now we see a light, because they recognize our suffering," she told AFP.

A legal designation of genocide -- defined by the UN as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" -- could be followed by further sanctions and limits on aid, among other penalties against the already-isolated military junta.

A case was opened against Myanmar for genocide at the ICJ in 2019, and the court is currently hearing preliminary arguments on Myanmar's objection to the case.

The Holocaust Museum prepared its own report in late 2017 with the group Fortify Rights that concluded there was compelling evidence of crimes against humanity in Myanmar.

The US State Department released a report in 2018 that detailed violence against the Rohingya in western Rakhine state as "extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents."

But activists have called for stronger actions, noting that the United Nations Security Council has done little to call out the Myanmar regime.

"War crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed every day with impunity by the military junta of Myanmar," Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.

Andrews accused the United Nations of insufficient action to help the Rohingya and others the country, in contrast to the strong international support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

"As the military junta escalates its ruthless attacks on the people of Myanmar, the people of Myanmar see only endless expressions of concern from the international community, vague declarations that something should be done and a tedious, endless wait for a consensus to act," Andrews said.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States to push for a UN Security Council resolution and an UN-backed arms embargo on Myanmar.

The group also called for greater sanctions on the country, to cut off the military's income from energy, timber and mining industries.

"The military utilizes the bulk of these revenues to support its expenditures, which include extensive purchases of arms and attack aircraft from Russia, China, and other countries," the group said.