A Myanmar border guard police officer patrols along the country’s boundary with Bangladesh in June. (Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday imposed sanctions on three Myanmar military commanders and a border guard police commander, along with two military units, for their involvement in “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims in Rak­hine state.

It was the firmest U.S. action against the Myanmar military since it launched a brutal campaign against the minority group about a year ago. 

The move comes as the State Department readies a comprehensive report on atrocities in Rakhine last August. The study could include findings on whether the military committed crimes against humanity or genocide against the Rohingya.

Human rights groups and experts have accused the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, of waging a premeditated campaign against the Rohingya, disputing its explanation that it was merely responding to militant attacks on police posts. The army’s weeks-long clearance operation in Rakhine resulted in allegations of rape, indiscriminate killing and the torching of Rohingya homes.  

The three military commanders, Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe and Khin Hlaing, and the border guard police commander, San Lwin, were sanctioned for their roles in leading campaigns against ethnic minority communities, the Treasury Department said in a press release. In addition to the campaign in Rakhine, the military has “used many of the same tactics against a number of other ethnic and religious minority groups,” the department said, citing “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and torture against civilians.” Khin Hlaing was specifically sanctioned for his role in Shan state, in the country’s north, in actions against ethnic Kachin and Chinese minorities. 

The Treasury Department also sanctioned two entire military units — the 99th and 33rd light infantry divisions — in a rare move. Both were designated for “engaging in serious human rights abuse,” the department said. Soldiers of the 33rd Light Infantry Division participated in last August’s campaign against the Rohingya and were accused of firing on fleeing villagers and raping women. 


The ruins of a market that was set on fire at a Rohingya village in Rakhine state, Myanmar, Oct. 27, 2016. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

“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,” said Sigal Mandelker, treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “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 a statement Friday, the Myanmar embassy in Washington said it was working closely with the United States to “promote friendship and cooperation between the two countries.”

“The Government of Myanmar condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” the statement said, adding that security forces have been instructed to exercise restraint in their operations. “No one is above the law in present Myanmar and those who breach the law will be brought to justice.”

Several people familiar with the matter, who discussed it on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the Treasury Department for months has had the names of Myanmar military commanders responsible for actions against the Rohingya. But the United States has been slower than other Western nations to respond to the atrocities while it determines the most appropriate foreign policy response.

Washington has been weighing the risk that sanctions or tougher actions against Myanmar would push the country closer to China, its neighbor to the north. The military’s actions against the Rohingya have boosted its popularity within the country, and Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not spoken out strongly against the atrocities. 

Canada and the European Union sanctioned seven Myanmar military and police leaders in June over similar accusations. Stronger action against Myanmar from Congress, meanwhile, has stalled as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has blocked any punitive action that could be perceived as directed toward Suu Kyi. Provisions that would bar U.S. cooperation with or assistance to Myanmar’s military and impose sanctions on generals overwhelmingly passed the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, but they were left out of the final bill because of opposition from McConnell, people familiar with the negotiations said. 

Matthew Smith, who leads the advocacy group Fortify Rights, said Friday’s announcement was a “welcomed and useful start.” Fortify Rights recently published a report charging that the Myanmar military’s actions in Rakhine were a result of deliberate and meticulous planning.

“Certain members of Congress who want to protect Suu Kyi should understand that there’s no alternative to holding perpetrators accountable in the face of genocide and mass atrocities,” Smith said. “Military impunity is one of Myanmar’s most significant problems, and Suu Kyi stands in the way of fixing it.”

Fortify Rights, Amnesty International and other rights groups argue that sanctions must include the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing. 

“Responsibility extends to the highest levels of the chain of command — so, too, should justice and accountability,” Francisco Bencosme, Asia-Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “That includes Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in Chief of the Myanmar military.”

Others, however, have argued that sanctions — which block their targets’ assets in the United States and prevent U.S. businesses from working with them — will not harm the Myanmar’s army, which has few U.S. holdings. 

“Sanctions will not affect the military,” said a former high-ranking Myanmar army official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. He argued that punitive actions, including prosecution at the International Criminal Court, would only harden its position.

“If you push the military too hard, they will behave in a much more extreme way — and then China will be very happy,” he added.

Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.