United States condemns 'ethnic cleansing' of Myanmar's Rohingya

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More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the mainly Buddhist country for Bangladesh since the military launched a counter-insurgency operation in Rakhine state in late August.

A separate investigation by New York-based Human Rights Watch said Myanmar troops gang-raped countless Rohingya women and girls in a campaign of "ethnic cleansing".

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has shifted his stance on the Myanmar government's actions against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country, labeling their actions "ethnic cleansing" in a statement Wednesday.

Tillerson says those responsible "must be held accountable".

The declaration is likely to increase pressure on the Trump administration and Congress to move toward new sanctions on Myanmar.

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The Rohingya, who live in Rakhine state in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been in the country since the 8th century.

Last week, Tillerson traveled to Myanmar in the highest level visit by a USA official since Trump took office.

Pressure from Congress to take punitive steps against Myanmar has been mounting.

In a memorandum to the UN Human Rights Council Monday, Amnesty and almost three dozen other rights groups called for a special session to evaluate the Rakhine crisis.

Tillerson's statement comes less than a week before Pope Francis is due to touch down in Myanmar for a week-long visit of the region, including a trip to Bangladesh.

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USA officials have been concerned that pushing Myanmar's leaders too hard on the Rohingya violence could undermine the country's civilian government, led for the last 18 months by Suu Kyi. "The security forces' brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in the past three months is just another extreme manifestation of this appalling attitude".

Tuesday's report follows the publication of other testimonies from survivors of the Rohingya exodus from Rakhine State, alleging a number of atrocities committed by Myanmar's military. It surfaced in the context of the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia, when a United Nations commission defined it as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area".

"As our own researchers have documented on the ground, the Myanmar military has been brutally murdering, raping, and burning the Rohingya for months". But the government considers them illegal immigrants, not citizens.

Earlier this year the USA restored restrictions on granting visas to members of Burma's military, and the State Department has deemed units and officers involved in operations in Rakhine state illegible for U.S. assistance.

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