The United States on Tuesday announced sanctions against Myanmar Army’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and three generals for their alleged role in the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in the country, Reuters reported. The sanctions barred them from entering the United States.

The steps taken against Min Aung Hlaing’s deputy Soe Win, and brigadier generals Than Oo and Aung Aung and their families are the strongest measures the United States has taken in response to the killings of Rohingyas. The State Department said it took the action after finding credible information about the commanders’ involvement in gross violations of human rights.

“We remain concerned that the Burmese government has taken no actions to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, and there are continued reports of the Burmese military committing human rights violations and abuses throughout the country,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

He said a recent disclosure that Min Aung Hlaing had ordered the release of soldiers convicted of extrajudicial killings at the village of Inn Din during the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017 was “one egregious example of the continued and severe lack of accountability for the military and its senior leadership”.

“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. Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were jailed for breaking the Official Secrets Act, and spent more than 16 months behind bars for covering the Inn Din massacre. They were released on May 6.

Pompeo’s statements came on the first day of an international ministerial conference on religious freedom hosted by the State Department. The conference was attended by Rohingya representatives. “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,” added the secretary of state.

Accusations were not ignored, says Army spokesperson

However, a spokesperson for the Myanmarese military, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, said the accusations against the soldiers were not ignored, and referred to the army’s internal investigations. “Right now we have an investigative committee ... to conduct a detailed investigation,” he added. “They should value these facts.”

One army-led investigation in 2017 exonerated the security forces of all accusations of atrocities. A similar inquiry is going on at present.

A spokesperson for the ruling National League for Democracy Party criticised the United States’ move. “This kind of action happened because they do not understand the real situation of Myanmar,” said Myo Nyunt. He added that Myanmar’s leaders did not ignore human rights concerns.

More than seven lakh Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 as the Myanmar Army began to retaliate after attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group, on police posts and a military base. Most of them now live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in the country’s southeast coast. In February, Bangladesh requested India to help with the early repatriation of the Rohingya to Rakhine province.

On June 18, a report by the United Nations on its own conduct in Myanmar highlighted that the government “appeared to exploit the diverse narratives that they were hearing from different UN entities to play one against another” and forward its own agenda. It alleged security forces and insurgents were committing human rights violations against civilians that may amount to fresh war crimes. Myanmar has denied widespread wrongdoing.