STATE DEPARTMENT / CAPITOL HILL —
U.S. lawmakers are pressing the Trump administration to declare that ethnic cleansing is taking place against the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar — a majority-Buddhist nation also known as Burma, which has seen improved ties with Washington in recent years.
Meanwhile, the State Department is assessing further punitive options, including economic sanctions, against individuals and entities associated with violence and atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
"What we've seen inside Rakhine state is a collection of serious atrocities," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy told VOA on Tuesday in a briefing, being careful about the wording.
"All options are on the table on how best to describe this," he added, answering a question about whether considering the terms “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” are appropriate in this case.
Murphy, along with U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, traveled recently to parts of the northern Rakhine state and saw firsthand the situation there.
While the State Department has identified and announced new and ongoing actions to punish those who have committed atrocities, senior officials declined to refer to violence against the Rohingya Muslims as "ethnic cleansing" on Tuesday, before a complete review is announced.
"I'm not in a position ... to characterize it today, but to me this very closely resembles some of the worst kind of atrocities that I've seen during a long career," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Affairs Mark Storella at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, when pressed by lawmakers about whether he viewed the plight of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing.
"This is ethnic cleansing, it's pretty clear," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "Yes, I think it's genocide."
The United Nations said last week that 589,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, the day the latest round of violence broke. Subsequent clashes and a military counteroffensive have triggered the exodus of Rohingya villagers to Bangladesh.
Reputable international nongovernmental organizations have reported new satellite images reveal nearly 300 villages were partially or completely destroyed by fire since Aug. 25 — more than half of the approximately 470 Muslim villages in northern Rakhine state.
"Genocide is a legal term, it's defined by the treaty — the Genocide Convention. Ethnic cleansing is not a legal term. It is a phrase we use to describe certain kind of atrocities," former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs Tom Malinowski told VOA.
"Therefore, those determinations [ethnic cleansing] are not quite as serious," said Malinowski.
However, a determination of "ethnic cleansing" by Washington would carry a very strong political implication, as the U.S. continues its support of Burma's civilian government, which is under the leadership of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her government allies have little control over Burma's still powerful military.
"The United States has developed good relations since the transition to democracy in Burma, but using the phrase doesn't carry any particular obligation," Malinowski told VOA.
Participating countries of the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" are advised to prevent and punish actions of genocide in war and in peacetime.
State Department officials said individuals associated with Rohingya violence include Burmese security forces, Rohingya militants, local vigilantes, and the like.
The State Department has cut off travel waivers allowing current and former senior military leaders into the United States. All military units and officers involved in operations in northern Rakhine state are ineligible to receive American assistance.
The current crisis, now under way for two months, has exacerbated longstanding challenges for the Rohingya minorities, who lack basic rights, including recognition as a nationality and citizenship.
The United States has provided $104 million in humanitarian aid for displaced populations in both Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh since this fiscal year.
The State Department separately has called on the Myanmar government to address the matter, while promising U.S. support for the country's transition to democracy.
"The Government of Burma, including its armed forces, must take immediate action to ensure peace and security; implement commitments to ensure humanitarian access to communities in desperate need; facilitate the safe and voluntary return of those who have fled or been displaced in Rakhine State; and address the root causes of systematic discrimination against the Rohingya by implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission's recommendations, which includes providing a credible path to citizenship. We are ready to support these efforts," according to a statement released by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
Esha Sarai contributed to this report.