The US wants Myanmar to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in their own villages following their exodus from violence-wracked Rakhine State towards Bangladesh, a senior State Department official said in Dhaka yesterday.
Simon Henshaw, acting US assistant secretary of state who visited refugee camps in southeast Bangladesh, said Myanmar should also punish those who committed atrocities in Rakhine.
"Responsibility for repatriation of Rohingya people lies with the government of Myanmar ... safe and secure repatriation is the best possible way to resolve the crisis," the US official said at a press conference in the city.
"Part of bringing people back to Rakhine State requires these people be allowed to return to their land .... And for those whose villages are burnt, quick efforts need to be made to restore their homes and their villages," he added.
Asked about Myanmar's dillydallying in repatriation, he said no matter how frustrating the talk is for either side, it has to go on and the US will do whatever it can to keep it continuing.
Henshaw's visit comes as the US lawmakers have proposed sanctions against Myanmar's military in some of the strongest efforts yet by Washington to pressure the Southeast Asian nation to end abusive treatment of the Rohingya minority.
House Republicans and Democrats introduced legislation that would curtail assistance or cooperation with Myanmar's military and require the White House to identify senior military officials who would have US visa bans imposed or reimposed against them.
A bipartisan group in the Senate, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, introduced their bill Thursday.
It calls for renewal of import and trade restrictions on Myanmar, including re-imposing a ban on jade and rubies from the country.
"Our legislation would hold accountable the senior military officials responsible for the slaughter and displacement of innocent men, women and children in Burma, and make clear that the United States will not stand for these atrocities," McCain said in a statement.
House Democrat Eliot Engel said lawmakers wanted to send a "clear message" with the targeted sanctions, both to the military and the civilian leadership, about the violence that has left hundreds of people dead.
"This violence must stop, perpetrators must be held accountable, and there must be meaningful civilian control over Burma's military and security forces," Engel said.
Lawmakers also want Myanmar's military to ensure safe return of refugees displaced from Rakhine.
"There will be consequences for their crimes against humanity," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democratic sponsor of the bill.
But efforts to bring sanctions and accountability through the Senate ultimately rest on the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a longtime supporter of Suu Kyi.
McConnell has thus far sided with those wary of anything that could undermine her position, destabilise the country and diminish the newly installed democratic government.
Henshaw, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said his country will constantly evaluate the situation to issue sanctions against Myanmar.
"We will constantly evaluate the situation to make those decisions. The congress has given us a number of tools, which we can use."
The US official led a seven-member delegation to Myanmar from October 29 and then came to Bangladesh to visit the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar and discuss the issue with officials of Bangladesh and international organisations.
Stating that there are disturbing reports of atrocities in Myanmar, he said the US calls on full investigation of those reports of violence that sent Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh in last two months.
"We also call on Myanmar government to allow access to press and international organisations so they too can see the situation on the ground," he told the press at the American Club.
“Over 600,000 people moved to Bangladesh not just because they wanted to move. Something serious definitely took place in Rakhine State. And we have made clear our views on this," he said describing his talks with Myanmar officials.
The US delegation told Myanmar government that it is their responsibility to restore security and stability in Rakhine for a voluntary and safe repatriation of the Rohingyas.
"It is their responsibility to investigate the reports of atrocities and bring those who committed crimes to accountability," said Henshaw.
Finally, he added, reconciliation between groups in Rakhine -- political reconciliation must be there for return of the refugees.
"We believe the best solution is the return of Rohingya people to their land. It is assuring that the government of Myanmar is taking steps to discuss in turn with your government.”
Henshaw also noted that the Rohingya issue is very "complex".
"There are some political issues inside Burma [Myanmar]. It involves the fact that the country is going through military-civil democracy process. So, all these are very difficult and complex issues."
In another development, the EU Commission's humanitarian aid chief has acknowledged the plight of the oppressed Rohingya as likely constituting “ethnic cleansing”.
Speaking to Euronews late Friday, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides said he was “shocked by the magnitude of needs” of the Rohingya he saw on a two-day visit to Bangladesh last week.
“We have to persuade the Myanmar government that it's just human rights, fundamental rights for any person, for any human being. I agree with UN Secretary-General Guterres that maybe the only description for this situation is ethnic cleansing.”
Talking about his visit to refugee camps, Henshaw said the situation is shocking and appalling and it is hard not to cry hearing the stories of sexual abuses, murders and other atrocities.
"Six hundred thousand people moving in a two month-period is something that I haven't seen in my four and a half years of time in this job," he said, but appreciated Bangladesh's efforts in sheltering and helping them.
Spokesperson of the US State Department Heather Nauert and US Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat were present at the press conference.
Nauert said Rohingya crisis has the top attention of the officials in Washington -- "not just at the State Department but at the White House."
She said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would visit Myanmar on November 15 and discuss the issue.
[With inputs from AFP, Reuters, NBC News, BSS and Anadolu Agency]