The U.S. State Department on Thursday refused several times to designate the systemic atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar as "ethnic cleansing."
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy steered clear of the term when pressed repeatedly by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to corroborate the United Nations' assessment that Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya minority represents a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
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More than 500,000 people have fled to Bangladesh over the past month, with tens of thousands more trapped on the border, amid reports of the Burmese military burning entire villages and methodically killing Rohingya civilians.
Murphy said security forces bear responsibility for a "disproportionate response" to a Rohingya insurgent attack on more than two dozen security sites that killed 12 people on Aug. 25, but he hedged on whether the military reaction constituted ethnic cleansing. Murphy instead described the crisis as a "human tragedy."
Murphy's response drew criticism from lawmakers, including committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.).
"Just for the record, myself and Mr. Engel, this committee, we identify this as full-fledged ethnic cleansing," Royce said.
Engel said satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts show Myanmar's military and security forces "have been carrying out an intentional, systematic policy to drive Rohingya from their homes in Burma and to burn their villages to the ground."
He said medical professionals in the region have reported hundreds of Rohingya Muslims being treated for gunshot wounds exacted by security forces as people attempted to flee.
The strongest criticism of Murphy came from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), who asked the State official if his refusal to characterize the situation as ethnic cleansing was in fear of offending the Burmese military.
"Mr. Murphy, I guess I don’t understand your reluctance to call this what it is: Ethnic cleansing," Connolly said. "You’ve used code, ‘disproportionate response by the military, other sources of violence, a cauldron of complexities.' At least Nikki Haley admitted it appears to be ethnic cleansing."
"When 800,000 people of a particular ethnic background are living in the neighboring country because they've been forcibly removed from their villages, I'd call that ethnic cleansing, pretty clear and simple. What is your reluctance to call it what it is?" he continued.
Murphy rejected Connolly's characterization of his reluctance to use the term. He said the State Department is "deeply concerned by the human tragedy" and is focused on pursuing "action and to end the violence."
When pressed again by Connolly to explain his refusal to call it ethnic cleansing, Murphy replied the situation in part "must be focused on the UN fact-finding mission," which is expected to be complete in September 2018.
"So we're waiting for the UN?" Connolly asked.
"No, that is a parallel process that we are strongly supporting," Murphy replied.
"So we don't care whether the UN find sit ethnic cleansing or not, we're free to call it what we think it is," Connolly said.
"Absolutely, a human tragedy," Murphy replied.
"Then why don't you call it ethnic cleansing?"
"It's a human tragedy, congressman."
Connolly acknowledged the United States must be careful with the labels it applies to humanitarian crises, but said the tragedy in Myanmar must be described in clear terms.
Though Murphy declined to label the crisis as ethnic cleansing, he cited comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who last week accused Myanmar of carrying out a "brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority."
The UN defines ethnic cleansing as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas."
In September, the top UN human rights official said the "brutal security operation" against the Rohingya "seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," and called upon the government to cease military action against the minority ethnic group.