More than 600,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar.
The United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson termed military operations by the Myanmarese armed forces against Rohingyas ethnic cleansing . He threatened to impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for such 'horrendous atrocities'.
The Tillerson statement marks a change in stance to put pressure on the civilian and military leaders of Myanmar. The country is being run by a power-sharing arrangement between the military and the civilian administration. This uneasy relationship holding the reins of administration came into effect after multiple decades of military rule. The U.S. hopes that the pressure being applied will alleviate the crisis.
The present Government of Myanmar is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is in power for approximately two years now. The government has encountered tough international criticism for the way it handled the crisis. In its defense, the Suu Kyi government has no control over the military generals with which it shares real power.
About 600,000 Rohingyas, all Muslims, have escaped from Rakhine state. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country bordering predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. The continuous military crackdown has led to a near constant stream of Rohingyas crossing the border into Bangladesh.
The Myanmar military has been accused of atrocities by Human Rights monitors. The armed forces have allegedly killed significant populations, conducted mass rape, and engaged in arson. The victims were overwhelmingly stateless Rohingyas. All these were done as a part of the clearance operations which was undertaken after Rohingya militants attacked 30 Myanmar police posts on August 25. An army base was also attacked by the militants.
Tillerson, interestingly, did not explicitly ask for any international investigation into the atrocities. This lack of action disappointed a number of human rights advocates. To his credit, the U.S. Secretary of State asked for an independent and credible investigation.
The United Nations had earlier highlighted the pitiable conditions of Rohingya refugees in September. Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the human rights head, has spoken sharply against the Myanmar Government at UN Human Rights Council. He said in Geneva that the unfolding events can be described only as ethnic cleansing. He said that the Myanmarese military has laid landmines along the country's border with Bangladesh. The Myanmar Government has also asked the minority who return to the country proof of their nationality. The latter is hard to prove as successive Myanmar governments from 1962 have progressively pared down the civil and political rights of the Rohingyas.