Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed Burma's security forces and "local vigilantes" for what he called "intolerable suffering" by the Rohingya. Human rights monitors have accused Myanmar's military of atrocities against the stateless Rohingya.
Officials in Myanmar, a mostly Buddhist nation, deny accusations of a systematic offensive against the Rohingya and claim the military intervened in Rakhine to battle Muslim insurgents. He called again for an official investigation into the crisis, saying those who were responsible must be held accountable.
"The Rohingya have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades, and the worldwide community must not fail them now when their very existence in Myanmar is threatened" said Cameron Hudson, Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The term "ethnic cleansing" is not defined in worldwide or USA law and does not inherently carry specific consequences, a second senior US official said on the call. Myanmar's two-year-old government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced heavy global criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with in the country's transition to civilian power after decades of military rule.
Tillerson was recently in Naypyitaw where he met separately with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces General Min Aung Hlaing. He also called for an independent probe into north Rakhine State. Earlier this month, a House committee passed a non-binding resolution condemning "murderous ethnic cleansing and atrocities" and calling on Trump to impose sanctions on those responsible for abuses. "The United States will also pursue accountability through US law, including possible targeted sanctions".
"The idea of again levying broad-based sanctions is not something that we think is going to be very productive", a senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday.
Broad-based USA sanctions on Burma were eased under former president Barack Obama as the Southeast Asian nation inched toward democracy. Support by Burma's military for these government efforts is crucial. That could slow or reverse the country's delicate transition away from decades of harsh military rule and risks pushing Burma away from the US and closer to China. In response to the dire situation, I announced last week an additional $47 million in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the Rakhine State crisis, bringing the total amount spent in response to this crisis to more than $87 million since August of this year. Both designations carry significant legal consequences.
Some world leaders had already described the scorched-earth military campaign against the Rohingya as "ethnic cleansing".