U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state targeting Muslim Rohingya qualifies as ethnic cleansing.
"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 said in a written statement Wednesday.
U.S. officials have been investigating what is behind the attacks that have killed hundreds of Rohingya and forced more than 600,000 across the border into camps in Bangladesh.
WATCH: US Secretary of State Calls Violence Against Rohingya in Myanmar 'Ethnic Cleansing'
Wednesday's announcement marks the first time the State Department has designated the violence as ethnic cleansing. Officials briefing reporters on background called the designation a descriptive term.
"It [the determination] carries with it, again, the sense of urgency," one senior official said. "So it does not require any new obligations, but it does emphasize our concern about the situation and the importance of remediation, and to reverse the ethnic cleansing and make sure people can go home voluntarily and live their lives in dignity."
The determination also increases pressure on the military of Myanmar.
“No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued,” Tillerson said. "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."
The secretary of state in his written statement noted the United States will continue to work with the United Nations to seek resolution to the crisis in Myanmar and "will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions."
Myanmar’s military has repeatedly rejected claims that atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, are occurring in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence that the U.N. has qualified as "textbook ethnic cleansing."
The government does not recognize the Rohingya, referring to them as “Bengali” to imply origins in Bangladesh. But Bangladesh officials said the Rohingya are “Myanmar nationals” and it is a mistake to call them Bangladeshis.
'Ethnic cleansing' and sanctions
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25, after insurgents attacked security forces and prompted a brutal military crackdown.
The U.S. State Department for weeks had been considering whether to officially make the same determination. During a visit last week to Myanmar, Tillerson said events in the west coast state of Rakhine had the "characteristics of crimes against humanity" but stopped short of describing them as ethnic cleansing.
Tillerson's statement Wednesday carries strong political implications, as the U.S. weighs imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar, while continuing its support of the country's civilian government and its democratic transition, which is under the leadership of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
There is support among some U.S. lawmakers to impose financial and other penalties on Myanmar, although others have said they prefer to keep supporting a country still in the midst of a democratic transition.
The Burma Sanctions Bill in the House of Representatives and a companion bill in the Senate would apply economic pressure on military generals with the aim of ending the ongoing violence inflicted on Rohingya Muslims.
"This sends a very strong message to the Burmese military that we're not going to tolerate business as usual while they reap economic profits at the same time as they are perpetuating ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people," said Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Those against sanctions say Aung San Suu Kyi and her government allies have little control over Myanmar's still powerful military.
A senior State Department official said Wednesday the key to continuing the success of Myanmar’s transition is “to allow the economy to develop, to get the peace process going” so it can put some of the conflicts behind and allow the country to move forward.
“The idea of levying broad-based economic sanctions is not something that we think will be very productive either for getting accountability or for the broader set of purposes that the US is trying to achieve in Myanmar,” said the official in a telephone briefing.
Plight of Rohingya
Tillerson's statement Wednesday comes a day after a U.S. Senate delegation to Myanmar said the crisis in the Rakhine state "has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing."
"Many refugees have suffered direct attacks including loved ones, children and husbands being killed in front of them, wives and daughters being raped, burns and other horrific injuries," Senator Jeff Merkley told a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Yangon.
Merkley said the U.S. Congressional delegation has urged Myanmar’s government to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission, and to allow the United Nations and NGOs access to the troubled region to provide humanitarian assistance.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce on Wednesday welcomed the administration's declaration that Burma's military actions against the Rohingya are ethnic cleansing.
"In recent months, we've heard horrific stories of young Rohingya mothers torn from their burning homes, drowned children and mass execution," Royce said in a statement. "Now the U.S. should impose sanctions against the Burmese military leaders responsible for this bloodbath."
Separately, Aung San Suu Kyi expressed hope Tuesday for reaching an agreement with Bangladesh on the return of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh in the past three months.
"Nothing can be done overnight, but we believe that we will be able to make steady progress," she said.
In his statement Wednesday, Secretary of State Tillerson said the situation is "difficult and complex" and called for accountability.
"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.
Amnesty International said the secretary's acknowledgment of ethnic cleansing and call for a investigation "sets an example for how the world can respond to this crisis."
“The time for outrage and condemnation has passed," said Joanne Lin, Amnesty's national director of advocacy and government relations on Wednesday. "The international community must impose a comprehensive arms embargo and targeted financial sanctions against senior Myanmar military officials responsible for crimes against humanity."