The United States on Wednesday (Nov 22) called the Myanmar military operation against the Rohingya population â€œethnic cleansingâ€ and threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for what it called â€œhorrendous atrocities.â€
â€œThe situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,â€ U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement, using a term he avoided when visiting Myanmar, also known as Burma, last week.
â€œThe United States will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctionsâ€ against those responsible for the alleged abuses, which have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, he said.
The United States shifted its stance in part to raise pressure on Myanmarâ€™s military and civilian leaders, who have shared power for the past two years under an uneasy arrangement after decades of military rule, to address the crisis.
Rights monitors accused Myanmarâ€™s military of atrocities, including killings, mass rape and arson, against the stateless Rohingya during so-called clearance operations after Rohingya militantsâ€™ Aug. 25 attacks on 30 police posts and an army base.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, since the crackdown, which followed the insurgent attacks.
â€œThese 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,â€ Tillerson said.
While repeating U.S. condemnation of the insurgent attacks, he added: â€œNo provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued.â€
Myanmarâ€™s 2-year-old government, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals with whom it shares power.
â€œItâ€™s not a situation that is completely under her authority, but certainly we are counting on her to show leadership and also to work through the civilian government with the military to address the crisis,â€ a senior U.S. official told reporters in a conference call.
The term â€œethnic cleansingâ€ is not defined in international or U.S. law and does not inherently carry specific consequences, a second senior U.S. official said on the call.
In early November, U.S. lawmakers proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military officials.
Rights group Amnesty International called for a comprehensive arms embargo against Myanmar as well as targeted financial sanctions against senior Myanmar military officials.