U.S. Calls Myanmar's Actions Against Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing -- 2nd Update

By Dion Nissenbaum and Felicia Schwartz Features Dow Jones Newswires

The U.S. on Wednesday declared Myanmar's military campaign against its Muslim minority "ethnic cleansing," setting the stage for tougher action against the country that has carried out "horrendous atrocities" that led to an exodus of people fleeing the violence.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued his conclusion after months of pressure from humanitarian aid groups and State Department staffers who have urged a tougher U.S. stand against Myanmar's crackdown on its Muslim minority.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since August, when Rohingya militants attacked government security forces, triggering a prolonged military campaign.

"No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued," Mr. Tillerson said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the country by its former name, Burma. "These abuses by 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."

He added: "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."

Mr. Tillerson's assessment follows a visit last week to Myanmar, where he met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. At the time, Mr. Tillerson declined to declare the violence "ethnic cleansing" and said more investigation was needed.

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Myanmar officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, although Mr. Tillerson's statement is likely to disappoint Myanmar's leaders, who sought to cast the military operation as targeted at militants.

The U.S. declaration sets the stage for Washington to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation led by Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has faced intense international criticism for not doing enough to protect her country's Muslim minority.

In September, the United Nations' top human-rights official declared the situation in Myanmar "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." But the U.S. held off on making a similar declaration.

Muslim refugees who fled the violence described a systematic campaign of violence that killed, men, women and children. Scores of villages were burned to the ground. U.N. investigators said they had documented instances of rape, torture, and summary executions.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. on Wednesday declared Myanmar's military campaign against its Muslim minority "ethnic cleansing," setting the stage for tougher action against the country that has carried out "horrendous atrocities" that led to an exodus of people fleeing the violence.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued his conclusion after intense pressure from human-rights groups and State Department staffers who have urged a tougher U.S. stand against Myanmar's crackdown on its Muslim minority.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since August, when Rohingya militants attacked government security forces, triggering a prolonged campaign by the military, security forces and vigilante groups accused of systematically torturing, raping, beating and killing members of the Muslim minority.

"No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued," Mr. Tillerson said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the country by its former name, Burma. "These abuses by 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."

He added: "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."

Mr. Tillerson's assessment follows a visit last week to Myanmar, where he met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. At the time, Mr. Tillerson declined to declare the violence ethnic cleansing and said more investigation was needed.

Myanmar officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, although Mr. Tillerson's statement is likely to disappoint Myanmar's leaders, who sought to cast the military operation as targeted at militants.

The U.S. declaration sets the stage for Washington to impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation led by Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has faced intense international criticism for not doing enough to protect her country's Muslim minority.

Ms. Suu Kyi, who won the prize in 1991 for her nonviolent campaign against the country's military, has defended her stance and said that she is working to address a complex situation without further dividing the country.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called Mr. Tillerson's move "long overdue" and expressed his disappointment with Ms. Suu Kyi's response to the crisis.

"We cannot let another massacre occur as the world stands by and watches, " he said. "The United States has a moral obligation to do all it can to prevent mass atrocities and make clear to those responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Burma -- and those who look to do the same elsewhere -- that their actions will not be tolerated."

One senior State Department official, speaking Wednesday to reporters on background, said Ms. Suu Kyi was doing what she could to address the crisis.

"It'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, " the official said. "And I think she has been speaking out."

In September, the United Nations' top human-rights official declared the situation in Myanmar "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." But the U.S. held off on making a similar declaration.

Muslim refugees who fled the violence described a systematic campaign of violence that killed, men, women and children. Scores of villages were burned to the ground. U.N. investigators said they had documented instances of rape, torture and summary executions.

Mr. Tillerson acted Wednesday as concerned U.S. lawmakers push forward bills in the House and Senate to exert pressure on Myanmar and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has spoken about the Rohingya in stronger terms than her boss.

U.S. officials have grappled with competing goals in Myanmar and said Wednesday they didn't want to push too hard.

Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. induced the military junta that controlled the country to share power with the civilian government, which was finally seated last year, in exchange for relief from broad-based economic sanctions.

The senior State Department official said Wednesday that while the U.S. is considering targeted sanctions in response to the Rohingya crisis, it is avoiding broader sanctions measures to avoid damaging the country's economy and, with it, future prospects for the civilian government transition.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 22, 2017 15:56 ET (20:56 GMT)