The State Department said it has issued sanctions to four top military leaders in Myanmar over what it called "gross human rights violations" during the "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Targets of the sanctions include the military's commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, his deputy Soe Win, Brig. Gen. Than Oo and Brig. Gen. Aung Aung. The sanctions, which were announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday, mean the leaders and their immediate families are barred from entry into the United States.
"With this announcement, the United States is the first government to publicly take action with respect to the most senior leadership of the Burmese military," Pompeo said in a statement. "We designated these individuals based on credible information of these commanders' involvement in gross violations of human rights."
A U.N. fact-finding mission said last year that the military "took the lead in killing thousands of Rohingya civilians, as well as forced disappearances, mass gang rape and the burning of hundreds of villages." It recommended that Min Aung Hlaing and other top leaders be tried for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
A spokesperson for the Myanmar military, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, told The New York Times that the new travel ban won't have much effect on the leaders.
"It doesn't matter that they banned travel to the United States for the generals," said the spokesperson. "But it does insult the Myanmar military's dignity."
Pompeo's statement said that Min Aung Hlaing ordered the release of his men convicted of killing a group of Rohingya men in Inn Din, which was the subject of a Reuters investigation that won the Pulitzer Prize. "The Commander-in-Chief released these criminals after only months in prison, while the journalists who told the world about the killings in Inn Din were jailed for more than 500 days," Pompeo said. He called it an "egregious example of the continued and severe lack of accountability for the military and its senior leadership."
Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, said the sanctions alone are "not sufficient but a step toward more justice and accountability."
"It is the military as an institution which needs to be targeted," Mark Farmaner, director of the advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, said in a tweet. "The military will not change its behavior because a small number of its members have reduced holiday options."