WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military and police commanders and two army units, accusing them of “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims and widespread human rights abuses across the Southeast Asian nation.
The sanctions by the Treasury Department marked the toughest U.S. action so far in response to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority, which started last year and has driven more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh and left thousands of dead behind.
But the Trump administration did not target the highest levels of Myanmar’s military and also stopped short of calling the anti-Rohingya campaign crimes against humanity or genocide, which has been the subject of debate within the U.S. government.
The measures were announced as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to U.S. officials, prepares to issue the findings of an intensive U.S. investigation of alleged atrocities by Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
The release of the report, compiled from interviews at refugee camps in Bangladesh, is expected to be around the August 25 one-year anniversary of the bloody crackdown.
“Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, using an alternative name for Myanmar.
“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behavior as part of a broader U.S. government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” Mandelker said. The sanctions were imposed on military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe and Khin Hlaing and border police commander Thura San Lwin, in addition to the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions. The measures call for freezes of any U.S. assets the individuals hold, a prohibition on Americans doing business with them as well as bans on travel to the United States.
A Reuters special report in June gave a comprehensive account of the roles played by the two infantry divisions in the offensive against the Rohingya.
The military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
Myanmar’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Critics have accused President Donald Trump of being slow in his response to the Rohingya crisis. Human rights groups noted that while Friday’s sanctions list included generals, Myanmar’s powerful army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was spared.
Rich Weir, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the sanctions “an important but long overdue step.”
“The avoidance of the top military leaders is striking,” he added. “The likelihood that they did not know what was happening is close to infinitesimal.”
In the Treasury statement, Mandelker said: “The U.S. government is committed to ensuring that Burmese military units and leaders reckon with and put a stop to these brutal acts.”
In November, following the lead of the United Nations and the European Union, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted “ethnic cleansing,” a designation that increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pompeo has yet to decide whether, once he releases the State Department’s Rohingya atrocities report, to ratchet up characterization of the violence as crimes against humanity or genocide or to avoid any such label, the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Such terms could commit the United States to stronger punitive measures or help set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Some within the administration worry that this could complicate Suu Kyi’s relationship with the powerful military and push Myanmar closer to China, Washington’s regional rival.
Until Friday’s announcement, the United States had only sanctioned a single Myanmar commander and had scaled back already-limited bilateral military ties.
On Friday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, called on social media companies to better protect vulnerable communities by regulating hate speech on their platforms, citing a Reuters report that found more than 1,000 examples of content published on Facebook that attacked the Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar. ( https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate/ )
“Facebook and other technology companies must find the means to address these problems head on and invest in solutions,” said Cantwell in a statement.
Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are on trial in Myanmar on charges of violating a state secrets law after being arrested in December while reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya men. Both have pleaded not guilty and have told the court how they were “trapped” by police officials who planted documents on them.
This month Pompeo called for the immediate release of the two reporters.