After months of reticence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday officially referred to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as "ethnic cleansing." In a press statement, Tillerson reiterated his support for a democratic transition in the country, but added that the crisis in the northern state of Rakhine counts as "ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya."
In August, Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in Rakhine, prompting a brutal retaliation from Myanmar's military which reportedly razed villages and indiscriminately attacked civilians. The violence led to the mass exodus of Rohingya people east to Bangladesh. Myanmar's government has claimed that the Rohingya decided to burn their own villages and then willingly self-deported to Bangladesh en masse — more than 600,000 have fled in the last three months — but that claim has been widely disputed and debunked by reporters on the ground.
The State Department had previously expressed concern over Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, but had stopped short of calling the situation ethnic cleansing. Rohingya Muslims in the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar have been denied citizenship since 1982 and are not officially counted as one of the country's official 135 ethnic groups.
The Hill speculates that Tillerson's decision to refer to the situation in Rakhine as ethnic cleansing will prompt the Trump administration to enforce new sanctions on Myanmar's government. But ultimately, ethnic cleansing holds no legal ramifications under international law. The U.N. recognizes genocide as a crime, but it is notoriously hard to prosecute and the international body is still deliberating whether the term is applicable for Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya.