The comments were made on Wednesday by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, last week, visited Myanmar, where a fierce military crackdown has sent more than half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh since August.
“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 in Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh,” Tillerson said in a statement, using an alternative name for the country.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, said use of the term “ethnic cleansing” by Tillerson “comes with legal ramifications, and also puts the US on what many view is the right side of morality”.
The United Nations has also described the military’s actions against the persecuted minority as a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar’s army began its violent campaign against the Rohingya in late August, following a series of alleged attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army military posts in Rakhine state.
Fleeing Rohingya refugees accused the security forces of responding with a campaign of arson and murder in a bid to force them out of Myanmar. These allegations are supported by rights groups monitoring the situation.
“Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable,” Tillerson said of the violence.
US legislators proposed specific sanctions and travel restrictions on military officials in early November.
Myanmar is a majority Buddhist nation, with Christian, Hindu and Muslim minority populations. The Rohingya are predominately Muslim.
Described as the “world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination and abuse at the hands of Myanmar’s army, and have been denied citizenship since 1982.
Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor and de facto leader of Myanmar, came to power in 2015 following decades of nonviolent struggle against the country’s army.
But Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has also been criticised for neither condemning nor taking steps to halt the military violence against the Rohingya minority.
The Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s 135 state-recognised ethnic groups.
Aung San Suu Kyi and others refuse to refer to them as “Rohingya”, instead calling them “Bengali”, a term which suggests they are foreigners.