The U.S. has announced that it will no longer provide military aid to Myanmar's military units and officers taking part in violence against Rohingya Muslims who have fled the country en masse in one of the worst humanitarian crises Southeast Asia has seen in recent years.
U.S. officials had already restricted its collaboration with Myanmar’s military while placing an embargo on arms sales.
“We express our gravest concern with recent events in Rakhine state and the violent, traumatic abuses Rohingya and other communities have endured,” state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
“It is imperative that any individuals or entities responsible for atrocities, including non-state actors and vigilantes, be held accountable.”
Pressure has mounted for a tougher U.S. response to the Rohingya crisis ahead of President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to Asia next month when he will attend a summit of Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, in Manila.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, since security forces responded to Rohingya militants' attacks on Aug. 25 by launching a crackdown. The United Nations has already denounced it as a classic example of ethnic cleansing.
U.S. officials are preparing a recommendation for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that would define the military-led campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing, which could spur new sanctions, the U.S. government sources said.
The state department has also said it would no longer consider issuing travel waivers for senior Myanmar military leaders and will consider targeted economic measures against individuals as well as possible targeted sanctions.
Three officials testifying at a Senate hearing on Tuesday declined to say whether the treatment of the Rohingya was ethnic cleansing but listed new measures including targeted sanctions that Washington is considering.
Those steps, however, stopped short of the most drastic tools at Washington’s disposal such as reimposing broader economic sanctions suspended under the Obama administration.
"I'm not in a position ... to characterize it today, but to me this very closely resembles some of the worst kind of atrocities that I've seen during a long career," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Storella said when pressed to say whether he viewed the situation as ethnic cleansing.
Some U.S. lawmakers criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, head of Myanmar's civilian-led government and a Nobel peace laureate once hugely popular in Washington, for failing to do more.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the committee, chided Suu Kyi for what he called "dismissiveness" toward the plight of the Rohingya and said it might be time for a "policy adjustment" toward Myanmar.
At the hearing, Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian And Pacific Affairs, said additional sanctions were being considered but cautioned that doing so could lessen Washington's ability to influence Myanmar.