U.S. lawmakers called Tuesday for the Department of State to condemn Burma’s Rohingya crisis as “ethnic cleansing” and urged tougher action against the Burmese military.
Attorneys and policy experts for the Department of State (DOS) are preparing a recommendation for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to denounce the Burmese military’s campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing, and could deliver the recommendation as early as within the week, according to The Associated Press.
Tillerson will decide whether or not to follow the recommendation once it is delivered, but if he does define Burma’s conflict as ethnic cleansing it will increase pressure for the U.S. to levy heavier sanctions against the Burmese military, according to Reuters.
“My bosses have said it appears to be ethnic cleansing. I’m of that view as well,” Patrick Murphy, a senior U.S. diplomat for Southeast Asia, told the AP. The decision to use that terminology is ultimately not his to make, Murphy clarified.
DOS announced Monday that the U.S. was withdrawing military aid from Burma, would continue the policy of restricting travel for Burmese military officials, and was exploring options for sanctions against individuals associated with the Rohingya crisis.
U.S. lawmakers, like Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee urged Murphy and other DOS officials at a Tuesday senate hearing to appraise the situation in Burma in clear terms, with some calling to label ethnic cleansing, as they explored options for even tougher sanctions against the Burmese military.
The Burmese military have driven over 500,000 Rohingya out of Rakhine State into refugee camps in Bangladesh since 2016 after years of stoking communal violence against the Rohingya. (Related: The World’s Longest Running Civil War Has No End In Sight)
The violence in Burma caused even Democratic senators at the hearing to question whether it was right or beneficial for former President Barack Obama to lift U.S. sanctions against Burma.
“The military control Burma today,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said at the hearing, according to the AP. “That’s unacceptable, that’s why we imposed sanctions, because of military control. Sanction relief was given for what? So people can be ethnically cleansed?”
U.N. officials have repeatedly characterized the crisis in Burma as “textbook ethnic cleansing,” but U.S. officials have been more reticent to do so. U.S. officials weigh potential policy changes in an effort not to undermine Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
Tillerson has referred to the Rohingya crisis as violence “characterized by many as ethnic cleansing.”
The label “ethnic cleansing” does not qualify as a crime under international law, according to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention, but Murphy claimed “a determination of ethnic cleansing will not change our pursuit of full accountability.”
The DOS has not yet made any move to determine whether the Burmese military have committed crimes against humanity that are considered an individual crime under international law and carry stiffer penalties.
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