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 email@example.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 22, 2017 12:01 ET (17:01 GMT)