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Situation in Myanmar ‘ethnic cleansing’ against Rohingya, says Tillerson

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said those who perpetrated the atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority “must be held accountable”.

world Updated: Nov 22, 2017 22:41 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
United States of America,Myanmar,Ethnic Cleansing
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Chantilly, Virginia, October 5, 2017. (REUTERS)

The United States on Thursday said the atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims amounted to “ethnic cleansing” and threatened “targeted sanctions” against those responsible for the situation, including some in the military and security forces.

“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,” US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

The US will “pursue accountability through US law, including possible targeted sanctions”, he said. “Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable,” he added.

Even though the US withdrew broad-based economic sanctions against Myanmar in 2016, it had kept some in place, especially those imposed on the military. The new “targeted sanctions” will focus on individuals and groups responsible for the recent attacks, which were “organised, planned and systematic”, a senior administration official told reporters.

Hundreds of minority Rohingya Muslims have been killed and 600,000 were forced to flee to adjoining Bangladesh in one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has seen in recent years.

The term “ethnic cleansing” comes with no obligations or punitive measures under international or domestic US laws, unlike the designations of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”, which carry grave implications.

The violence was triggered by several attacks by a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on Myanmar’s security forces on August 25, which the US has condemned, but Tillerson noted that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued”.

These abuses, carried out 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”, he said.

Tillerson said the US will continue to “support a credible, independent investigation” to ascertain the facts on the ground, and also consider “targeted sanctions”.

He added that the US will also support the Myanmar government’s efforts to “create the conditions necessary for all refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes…voluntarily”.

The US has ruled out broad-based economic sanctions similar to those it had imposed earlier to force Myanmar’s military junta to yield power to democratic forces, a process that started only 18 months ago and remains fragile.

Last week, Tillerson travelled to Myanmar in the highest level visit by a US official since President Donald Trump took office. US officials dangled the possibility of an “ethnic cleansing” designation ahead of Tillerson’s trip, potentially giving him more leverage as he met with Myanmarese officials. In the capital of Naypitaw, Tillerson met with the civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the powerful military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who is in-charge of operations in Rakhine state.

US officials have been concerned that pushing Myanmar’s leaders too hard on the Rohingya violence could undermine the civilian government, led for the last 18 months by Suu Kyi. That could slow or reverse the country’s delicate transition away from decades of harsh military rule, and also risk pushing Myanmar away from the US and closer to China.

Human rights groups accuse the military of a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohinyga, who numbered roughly 1 million in Myanmar before the latest exodus. The Buddhist majority in Myanmar believes they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, but many Rohingya families have lived for generations in Myanmar. In 1982, they were stripped of their citizenship.

Already, the US has curtailed its ties to Myanmar’s military over the violence. Earlier this year the US restored restrictions on granting visas to members of Myanmar’s military, and the state department has deemed units and officers involved in operations in Rakhine illegible for US assistance.

(With inputs from agencies)

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 19:55 IST