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‘World can’t just stand idly by,’ America’s top envoy says of Rohingya crisis

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves after delivering remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on 18 October 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States held Burma’s military leadership responsible for its harsh crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Tillerson, however, stopped short of saying whether the United States would take any action against leaders of Burma’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, over an offensive that has driven more than 500,000 Rohingya out of the country.

Washington has worked hard to establish close ties with Burma’s civilian-led government led by Nobel laureate and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of competition from strategic rival China.

“The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening,” said Tillerson, who said the United States was “extraordinarily concerned” by the situation.

Forty-three US lawmakers urged the Trump administration to reimpose US travel bans on Burma’s military leaders and prepare targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown.

The request, in a letter to Tillerson from Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives, said Burmese authorities “appear to be in denial of what has happened” and called for Washington to take “meaningful steps” against those who have committed human rights abuses.

Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma in large numbers since late August when Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

Tillerson said Washington understood Burma had a militancy problem, but the military had to be disciplined and restrained in the way it dealt with this and to allow access to the region “so that we can get a full accounting of the circumstances.”

“Someone, if these reports are true, is going to be held to account for that,” Tillerson said. “And it’s up to the military leadership of Burma to decide, ‘What direction do they want to play in the future of Burma?’“

Tillerson said Washington saw Burma as “an important emerging democracy,” but the Rohingya crisis was a test for the power-sharing government.

He said the United States would remain engaged, including ultimately at the United Nations “with the direction this takes.”

The European Union and the United States have been considering targeted sanctions against Burma’s military leadership.

Punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals are among a range of options that have been discussed, but they are wary of action that could hurt the wider economy or destabilise already tense ties between Suu Kyi and the army.

Tillerson also said he would visit New Delhi next week as the Trump administration sought to dramatically deepen cooperation with India in response to China’s challenges to “international law and norms” in Asia.

Tillerson said the administration had begun a “quiet conversation” with some emerging East Asian democracies about creating alternatives to Chinese infrastructure financing.