After refusing to label the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing” last week, President Donald Trump’s administration has finally acknowledged that the persecuted minority is in fact the victim of genocide.
“[N]o provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued. These 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 in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement Wednesday morning. “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 went on to say that the acknowledgement will have ramifications for Myanmar’s government, which has enjoyed U.S. support since its recent democratic transition.
“Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable. The United States continues to support a credible, independent investigation to further determine all facts on the ground to aid in these processes of accountability,” Tillerson said. “We have supported constructive action on the Rakhine crisis at the UN Security Council and in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. The United States will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions.”
Those comments mark a shift for Tillerson, who visited Myanmar (also called Burma) earlier this month. Appearing alongside de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Tillerson said more information was needed before the United States aligned itself with the United Nations, which has condemned Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.
“We are very concerned by reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces,” Tillerson said at the time. “What we know occurred in Rakhine state … has a number of characteristics of crimes against humanity. Whether it meets all the criteria of ethnic cleansing we continue to determine ourselves.”
The situation the Rohingya are facing is dire. A Muslim minority in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya, who live predominately in Rakhine state, have endured persecution for years. But the past few months have seen a rapid downward spiral. After members of the newly formed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts in response to ongoing violence against the community, security officers responded brutally, slaughtering civilians and burning homes.
Those actions prompted a mass exodus. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the country since late August, arriving in neighboring Bangladesh desperate for assistance.
The crisis has placed mounting pressure on the international community to hold Myanmar’s government accountable. In September, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres finally acknowledged the severity of the violence, echoing comments from U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who called the campaign against the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
In a unanimous statement released earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council condemned the Rohingya’s treatment, expressing “grave concern” and urging Myanmar’s government to take action. But the statement fell short of the stronger resolution for which several Western nations had pushed, which would have been legally binding.
U.S. acknowledgment of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is crucial, but it could be a case of “too little, too late.” Following a months-long blockade, Myanmar finally allowed the U.N. food program into Rakhine state late last month to deliver much-needed supplies. But access remains limited. An Amnesty International report released Monday called the situation an ongoing “apartheid” amounting to “crimes against humanity” with no end in sight.
Tillerson himself indicated last week that he did not believe broad sanctions against Myanmar would help the Rohingya. It is unclear if his stance has changed following Wednesday’s announcement.