“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,” Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said on Friday.
“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behaviour as part of a broader US government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” Mandelker added.
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 US assets the individuals hold, a prohibition on Americans doing business with them, as well as travel bans.
The sanctions by the Treasury Department marked the toughest US action so far in response to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority, in which thousands were killed and more than 700,000 people fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
But the sanctions 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 US government.
The measures were announced as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to issue the findings of an intensive US 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 coincide with the August 25 one-year anniversary of the bloody crackdown.
The military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
Critics have accused US President Donald Trump of being slow in his response to the Rohingya crisis.
Human Rights Watch has called the sanctions “an important but long overdue step”.
“The avoidance of the top military leaders is striking,” Myanmar researcher Rich Weir said, adding: “The likelihood that they did not know what was happening is close to infinitesimal.”
The US had only sanctioned a single Myanmar commander and had scaled back already-limited bilateral military ties before Friday’s announcement.