The Cable

Tillerson Finally Brands Myanmar Crisis ‘Ethnic Cleansing’

Beyond harsh words, Washington hasn’t meted out punishment on Myanmar yet.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a press conference in Myanmar on Nov. 15, 2017.   (Aung Htet/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a press conference in Myanmar on Nov. 15, 2017. (Aung Htet/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shifted his position on the widening crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, calling it for the first time Wednesday “ethnic cleansing,” and threatening sanctions against officials responsible.

Tillerson slammed Myanmar’s military and local vigilantes for carrying out “horrendous atrocities” and causing “tremendous suffering” in its campaign in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state where the Rohingya population is concentrated.

“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,” Tillerson said in a statement released Wednesday. “Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable,” he said, and called for an independent investigation into the violence.

It is a belated departure for the United States, which has used careful, restrained language since the latest crackdown began in August. Nearly 1 million Rohingya have been forced to leave their homes, many fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

Tillerson’s declaration, which comes months after similar denunciations from the United Nations, puts fresh attention on the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. But while Washington has shifted gears rhetorically, it hasn’t taken any steps to punish Myanmar’s government just yet.

Unlike terms such as “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” the “ethnic cleansing” label does not automatically trigger domestic or international legal actions.

“It is a descriptive term and it carries with it, again, the sense of urgency,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday. “It does not require any new obligations, but it does emphasize our concern about the situation.”

During a visit to Myanmar earlier this month, Tillerson said the violence have “characteristics of crimes against humanity” but stopped short of adding further labels.

Human rights groups have for months documented horrendous atrocities Myanmar forces carried out against the ethnic minority Rohingya Muslim groups, including gang rape, torture, and murder. They criticized the United States for dragging its feet on declaring the campaign ethnic cleansing, despite the top U.N. human rights official branding it as such over two months ago.

“Secretary Tillerson’s acknowledgement of ethnic cleansing and call for an investigation sets an example for how the world can respond to this crisis,” said said Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International USA. “The time for outrage and condemnation has passed.”

While human rights groups are urging Washington to impose broader sanctions and push for an international arms embargo on Myanmar, the State Department said at this point it is only eyeing targeted sanctions against the military and government officials responsible for the atrocities.

“The idea of again levying broad-based sanctions is not something that we think is going to be very productive,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday. Sweeping economic sanctions wouldn’t focus on punishing the officials responsible, and could derail Myanmar’s slow economic emergence to the rest of the world just as it slowly opens up from decades of military rule, the official said.

Myanmar had been under broad Western sanctions for nearly thirty years until 2016, when then-President Barack Obama rolled back U.S. economic sanctions after the country formed its first democratically elected civilian government — though the military still retains significant residual power after decades of rule.

Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted in Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist country, for decades, but the conflict and subsequent refugee flow has intensified in the last year. The latest crisis kicked off in August, when Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar police outposts, prompting Myanmar to launch a massive so-called “clearance operation” in the region in retaliation.

Since last year, nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar — more than half the population of Rakhine state. Despite widespread international condemnation, the violence has not abated.

“The Rohingya have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades, and the international community must not fail them now when their very existence in Myanmar is threatened,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Without urgent action, there’s a high risk of more mass atrocities.”

The Myanmar government has prevented international human rights investigators from Rakhine, and insists that its armed forces have not committed atrocities while dealing with the Rohingya. On Tuesday, Myanmar’s national security advisor, in an opinion piece in Wall Street Journal, went so far as to suggest that the testimony of victims of the violent crackdown could be part of a plot to discredit the government.

“A number of sources indicate that we are seeing a sophisticated campaign designed to discredit and destabilize the Myanmar government,” wrote U Thaung Tun.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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