The United States officially designated persecution against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing on Wednesday. America threatened sanctions against Myanmar due to the “horrendous atrocities,” Reuters reported.
“The situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
“The United States will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions.”
Tillerson specifically called out the violence meted out to the Rohingya. “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,” he said.
Myanmar has drawn heavy criticism over its treatment of the Rohingya.The Rohingya are mostly Muslims and have lived in majority Buddhist Myanmar for centuries. However, during British rule their numbers were bolstered by migrant laborers from elsewhere in British India (modern day India and Bangladesh) moving in. After independence in 1948, the rest of the country viewed them as illegal immigrants and consequently refused them statehood.
Although persecution has taken place since the 1970s, it increased in severity since October 2016, when nine policemen were killed by a militant Islamist group. A heavier crackdown began in August 2017 when a field base was attacked.
Since then, an estimated 615,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh, according to CNN.
Anti-Rohingya violence is spurred on by a hardline faction of Buddhists called the 969 Movement. They regard Islam, and by extension the estimated one million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, as an existential threat to Myanmar and its Buddhist heritage.
“It only takes one terrorist to be amongst them,” their leader Ashin Wirathu told The Guardian in an interview. “Look at what has happened in the West. I do not want that to happen in my country. All I am doing is warning people to beware.”
Amnesty International described the persecution as a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning.”