Abuses by Myanmar military and security personnel that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to seek refuge in Bangladesh amount to “ethnic cleansing,” the United States declared for the first time Wednesday, saying it would pursue possible sanctions on individuals who committed atrocities.
Rights groups and some of the more than 621,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, since the military launched a crackdown there on Aug. 25, have reported a campaign of indiscriminate killings, torture, arson, and rape by soldiers. Myanmar’s crackdown followed deadly attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police outposts in Rakhine.
“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,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement issued in Washington, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
“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.
Alhough the United Nations and rights groups had said weeks ago that the military’s actions against the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, the U.S. previously declined to label the atrocities as such.
Following meetings in Naypyidaw on Nov. 15 with Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and military commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Tillerson said then that he would evaluate the atrocities to see if they amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Though he reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to Myanmar’s ongoing transition to democracy, in his statement on Wednesday he cautioned that the country’s response to the crisis was 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 Rohingya insurgents 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 his statement.
“We have supported constructive action on the Rakhine crisis at the U.N. Security Council and in the U.N. 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.
This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.