Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday declared that the crisis in Myanmar’s volatile northern Rakhine state, from where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled during a military crackdown, constitutes ethnic cleansing and said Washington would pursue possible targeted sanctions on individuals who committed atrocities.
Rights groups and some of the more than 615,000 Rohingya refugees who have sought safety in Bangladesh have reported a brutal campaign of indiscriminate killings, torture, arson, and rape by soldiers following a deadly attack on police outposts by Muslim militants in late August.
Though the United Nations and rights groups said the military’s actions against the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, the U.S. previously declined to label the atrocities as such.
Following meetings with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Nov. 15 in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, however, Tillerson said he would evaluate the atrocities to see if they amounted to ethnic cleansing.
“These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering and forced hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to flee their homes in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh,” Tillerson said in a printed statement issued by the U.S. State Department, using the former name of Myanmar.
“After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” he said.
Though he reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to the country’s ongoing transition to democracy, he cautioned that Myanmar’s response to the crisis is vital to determining the success of its transition and said that those responsible for the atrocities must be held accountable.
The Myanmar government and armed forces have denied the reports and prevented a United Nations fact-finding mission from entering the country to conduct an independent investigation.
The military, which conducted its own investigation of the Rohingya exodus and reports of abuse, concluded that soldiers abided by laws when conducting “area clearance operations” and did not use excessive force. It also blamed Muslim militants for torching Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine state before fleeing to Bangladesh.
“The United States continues to support a credible, independent investigation to further determine all facts on the ground to aid in these processes of accountability,” Tillerson said in the statement.
“We have supported constructive action on the Rakhine crisis at the UN Security Council and in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee,” he said, referring to the committee that handles a range of social, humanitarian, and human rights issues affecting people around the world.
“The United States will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions,” he said.
In early November, U.S. lawmakers proposed travel restrictions and targeted sanctions on senior military officials in Myanmar.