By Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis
(Reuters) - Myanmar "feels sad" over a U.S. decision to sanction a military general, a government spokesman said, after Washington linked the commander last week to abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
"This targeted sanction is based on unreliable accusations without evidence, as we have repeatedly said, so we feel sad for that," Zaw Htay, spokesman for Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told Reuters by phone late on Tuesday.
The Trump administration announced on Dec. 21 that it was sanctioning Major General Maung Maung Soe, who was in charge of a crackdown on the Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine.
The United States, as well as the United Nations, have called the crackdown "ethnic cleansing". About 655,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state and sought shelter over the border in Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
The United States said American officials had "examined credible evidence of Maung Maung Soe's activities, including allegations against Burmese security forces of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrest as well as the widespread burning of villages".
The military and the civilian government of Suu Kyi have denied allegations of widespread abuse in Rakhine.
The testimonies of Rohingya refugees were only "talking stories", Zaw Htay said, adding that Myanmar would act if it received "reliable and strong evidence" that its troops committed crimes.
"We have told international governments and human rights groups including the U.N. that the current government is committed to protecting and promoting human rights," said Zaw Htay.
The U.S. Treasury said Maung Maung Soe, former chief of the army's Western Command, would have his U.S. assets frozen and Americans could no longer deal with him.
Reuters was unable to determine if Maung Maung Soe had business interests in Myanmar or elsewhere.
Maung Maung Soe was transferred from his post in Rakhine and "put in reserve", an army spokesman told Reuters on Nov. 13. No reason was given, but the military said the same day action would be taken against officials who were "weak in acquiring information" and who allowed the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) to spread through Muslim villages in Rakhine.
Reuters was unable to contact Maung Maung Soe. Major General Tun Tun Nyi of the military's public relations division, the True News Information Unit, said he had no comment on the sanctions and declined to answer questions on Maung Maung Soe.
As well as dominating the country's politics for decades, Myanmar's army - known as the Tatmadaw or "Royal Force" - has gained notoriety for brutal counter-insurgency tactics employed against rebels seeking autonomy in the borderlands since independence from Britain in 1948, according to historians and human rights monitors.
But since it began ceding power in 2011 - albeit under a constitution that keeps soldiers in key posts - the army has sought to burnish its image as a modern fighting force.
It has defended its actions in Rakhine, with military investigators concluding that troops adhered to rules of engagement and sought to minimise civilian casualties while responding to "terrorist" provocations.
But the spiralling Rohingya crisis has dashed hopes of expanding engagement with Western armies, Andrew Selth, an academic who has researched Myanmar's armed forces, wrote in September.
"This is a significant loss for the Tatmadaw, which is keen to learn about foreign military policies and practices," Selth wrote on the website of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. "Such contacts would have also helped its officers learn about international norms of behaviour and the role of armed forces in democracies."
Myanmar's military does not provide detailed biographies of senior officers.
In February last year, a state media report said Maung Maung Soe was a brigadier general in the far south of the country, near the border with Thailand. He was referred to as a major general in charge of the military's Western Command in October, 2016, shortly after ARSA attacked three border posts there, killing nine guards.
In the weeks after the attacks, Rohingya villagers told Reuters of gang rapes by soldiers and extrajudicial killings.
Two military sources told Reuters that Maung Maung Soe oversaw battalions Nos. 352, 551, 564 and 345, which led the so-called "clearance operations", and he reported directly to a Bureau of Special Operations in the capital Naypyitaw.
His forces were again in combat following more widespread ARSA attacks on Aug. 25 this year, although troops from elite units that report straight to Naypyitaw were airlifted into Rakhine ahead of those attacks.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in October that Battalion 564 was identified by villagers as taking part in an alleged massacre of scores of people in the village of Maung Nu, close to the unit's base in the Buthidaung area.
The day Maung Maung Soe's replacement as the commander in Rakhine was announced, the military released a report saying its own internal investigation had exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities, including in Buthidaung.
(Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Raju gopalakrishnan)