Myanmar Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, seen here in July 2018, has been hit with sanctions by the United States

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Tuesday banned visits by Myanmar’s army chief and three other top officers due to their role in the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya minority, urging accountability for their brutal campaign.

The State Department said it took action against army chief Min Aung Hlaing and the others after finding credible evidence they were involved in the violence two years ago that led about 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

“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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The sanctions are the most visible sign of US disappointment with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, since it launched political reforms in 2011, with the military junta reconciling with Washington and eventually allowing an elected political leadership.

Also sanctioned were Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo and Brigadier General Aung Aung as well as the families of all four officers.

- Strengthening civilians? -

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism from her onetime Western admirers for not speaking out against abuses against the Rohingya minority

Buddhist-majority Myanmar refuses to grant the mostly Muslim Rohingya citizenship or basic rights and refers to them as “Bengalis,” inferring that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

UN investigators say the violence warrants the prosecution of top generals for “genocide” and the International Criminal Court has started a preliminary probe.

Pompeo, issuing a statement during a major meeting at the State Department on religious freedom, repeated the 2017 finding of his predecessor Rex Tillerson that the killings amounted to “ethnic cleansing” – while stopping short of using the term genocide.

The sanctions notably do not impact Aung San Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who has risen to be the top civilian official.

The Nobel laureate has dismayed her onetime legions of Western admirers by not speaking out about the abuses.

US officials voiced hope that the sanctions would help the civilian leaders exert control over the army, which the State Department said was alone responsible for the anti-Rohingya campaign.

“Our hope is that these actions will strengthen the hand of the civilian government (and) will help to further delegitimize the current military leadership,” an official said on condition of anonymity.

- ‘Universally despised’ -

Young Rohingya refugees sleep in a police station in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in May 2019, after police said they were rescued from human traffickers

Erin Murphy, a former State Department official closely involved in the thaw in US ties with Myanmar, said the ban would affect not so much the generals directly but their children or grandchildren who want to come to the United States as tourists or students.

While saying the travel ban provided a tool to encourage change, she doubted it would change attitudes toward the Rohingya, who are “almost a universally despised population.”

“You’re talking about changing deeply held xenophobic and racist attitudes and a travel ban alone isn’t going to change that,” said Murphy, founder and principal of the Inle Advisory Group, which specializes in Myanmar.

“You need a lot more tools – both punitive and positive reinforcement – to start to tackle what is a very complex and difficult issue,” she said.

The United States last year imposed sanctions on more junior Myanmar security officials although the impact was more sweeping, with economic restrictions.

A State Department study released last year described the violence against Rohingya as “extreme, large-scale, widespread and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” including widespread rape and burning of villages.

Doctors Without Borders has estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the first month of the crackdown.

Myanmar’s army has denied virtually any wrongdoing and said it was responding to Rohingya insurgents.

Pompeo voiced particular outrage that Myanmar in May ordered the release of seven soldiers convicted of killing Rohingya villagers, serving less time than two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 500 days after exposing the deaths.