The U.S. government issued sanctions Friday against members of the Myanmar military for their part in an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims that has forced over 700,000 people from their homes.
The Treasury Department announced the sanctions against four Myanmar military and police commanders and two army units for a range of human rights abuses, which security forces in Yangon have consistently denied.
The move marks a significant escalation for the U.S. government, which previously sought to apply pressure on Myanmar through the U.N. Security council. Myanmar’s government has faced a constant stream of condemnation for its crackdown on the minority Rohingya population, which escalated last August, when thousands of people were killed and over 700,000 forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh in a matter of months.
“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 Sigal Mandelker, Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
"There must be justice for the victims and those who work to uncover these atrocities, with those responsible held to account for these abhorrent crimes,” Mandelker continued.
The sanctions will mean the four named military commanders — Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing,and Thura San Lwin — will be essentially shut out of the global financial system.
The Treasury said the sanctions were meant to be seen as a warning to Myanmar’s security forces to cease their continued attacks on ethnic and religious minorities.
Myanmar’s leaders, including President Aung San Suu Kyi, have sought to frame the escalating violence as a fight against terrorism, but the international community is unconvinced.
In March, the U.N. said that no other conclusion could be drawn but that the actions of the Myanmar military amounted to ethnic cleansing.
“The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues. I don’t think we can draw any other conclusion from what I have seen and heard in Cox’s Bazar,” said Andrew Gilmour, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights.
A month later, the U.N. also denounced the role played by U.S. technology giant Facebook in supercharging the spread of hate speech directed at the Rohingya. In a damning Reuters investigation published this week, Facebook’s failure to heed multiple warning signs was laid bare. The company has begun taking some steps to address the problem — including a human rights audit — but activists say the company still has a long way to go.
Cover image: Soldiers patrol through a neighbourhood that was burnt during recent violence in Sittwe June 14, 2012. To match Special Report MYANMAR-FACEBOOK/HATE REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo