WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are preparing a recommendation for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to declare that “ethnic cleansing” is occurring against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims. That assessment would raise pressure on the Trump administration and U.S. lawmakers to consider new sanctions on a country that had been lauded for its democratic transition.
Tillerson could receive the recommendation as early as this week, said officials familiar with the process. He will then decide whether to adopt the advice of his agency's policy experts and lawyers.
A declaration of “ethnic cleansing” by the top U.S. diplomat would mark a reversal of fortune in American relations with the country also known as Burma, whose civilian government has been under the leadership of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for more than a year. But Suu Kyi and her government allies have little control over Myanmar's still powerful military, which is blamed for a brutal crackdown on Muslims in Rakhine State that has caused more than 600,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh.
The State Department declined to comment.
The recommendation is being prepared as U.S. lawmakers urge fresh sanctions on Myanmar's military and are calling on the Trump administration to sever already restricted military ties. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the issue at a hearing on U.S. policy toward Myanmar on Tuesday.
The U.S. officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the internal process and requested anonymity, said the State Department won't make a call yet on whether crimes against humanity in Myanmar have occurred. Such a determination would be even more detrimental to Myanmar's military, as it could force the U.S. to push for legal accountability.
Attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security forces in late August triggered what human rights groups have called a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages. Amnesty International has reported that hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children have been systematically killed.
Calls for a U.S. determination of “ethnic cleansing” have intensified, as the United Nations and leading Western governments have used the term. Six weeks ago, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said it “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” French President Emmanuel Macron echoed that opinion, as have leaders of many in the Muslim world.
U.S. officials have been more reticent. Tillerson, who last week said that perpetrators will be held to account for atrocities, has referred to the violence as “characterized by many as ethnic cleansing.” U.N. envoy Nikki Haley told the Security Council last month it was “a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority.”
But that's as far as the administration has gone as it prepares for President Donald Trump's first trip to the region next month.
U.S. lawmakers have pushed for the administration to use the term without qualification. Earlier this month, Patrick Murphy, a senior U.S. diplomat for Southeast Asia, described it as a “human tragedy” as he was grilled by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He will testify again Tuesday.
According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention, “ethnic cleansing” isn't recognized as an independent crime under international law, unlike crimes against humanity and genocide. It surfaced in the context of the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia, when a U.N. commission defined it as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
Before the latest exodus, roughly 1 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar. The Buddhist majority believes they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, although many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations. They were stripped of their citizenship in 1982.
Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said a U.S. “ethnic cleansing” determination “is long overdue,” but should only be a first step.
“Even if the U.S. government does get there, the real question is what concrete response is there going to be?” she said.
Starting in 2012, the Obama administration lifted long-standing sanctions against Myanmar to reward its shift from military rule. The transition culminated in 2015 elections and a civilian government led by Suu Kyi. U.S. officials who are focused on Asia policy remain leery of punishing Myanmar for fear it could undermine Suu Kyi's efforts and push her country away from the United States and closer to rivals such as China.
Officials say the recent violence has prompted the U.S. administration to reverse a policy of waiving visa restrictions and allowing members of Myanmar's military and their families to visit here. The State Department also announced Monday that all units and officers involved in the operations in Rakhine were ineligible for U.S. assistance, and it has rescinded invitations for senior Myanmar security forces to attend U.S.-sponsored events.
Some lawmakers say that's hardly enough. More than 40 House members wrote to Tillerson last week to seek “significant actions to stop the ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya. Twenty-one senators wrote to Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., urging multilateral sanctions against specific senior Myanmar military officials.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, says the Rohingya are facing not just “ethnic cleansing,” but “genocide.” The U.N. defines that term as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Two years ago Yale Law School argued there was “strong evidence that genocide is being committed.”
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