Since fighting flared up again in Kachin state in April, thousands have fled their homes and found refuge in temporary shelters at church compounds in the state capital, Myitkyina.

The US government announced on Friday that it had imposed sanctions on Myanmar for “widespread human rights abuses” against Christians, Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities, reports The New York Times.

According to the Treasury Department the abuses against Rohingya Muslims in southwestern Rakhine state, forcing more than 700,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, amount to “ethnic cleansing”.

Economic sanctions have been placed on several members of Myanmar’s security forces for their role in “violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights abuses”.

The US also pointed out human rights abuses against the majority-Christian population in northern Kachin and Shan states, where the military, in a decades-old conflict with the Kachin Independence Army, has stepped up its offensive in recent months. Thousands have fled since fighting flared up again in early April.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians in the northern states, including murder and rape, destroying villages and bombing churches.

Bob Roberts, member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma and founder of a church in Texas, said last month after a recent visit to Myanmar that there were comparisons to be made between Rakhine and Kachin: “Already, there has been murder, there has been rape; there has been all of these things. It has not yet gotten to the level of the Rohingya. But there is concern that it could, real easy.”

Roberts also reported that “in the last 18 months, they [the military] have bombed 60 churches … [and] they have put Buddhist pagodas in 20 of those sites to reclaim them”.

“The army and radical monks do work side by side,” Thomas Muller, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of the charity Open Doors International, told World Watch Monitor last month. “The army uses the motive that the country is threatened by outside forces – Muslim, Western or others – and therefore finds radical groups like Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation [formerly known as Ma Ba Tha] quite handy. Preserving national unity means defending Buddhism as well; this is where they meet.”

Money also plays a role in the conflict. “Kachin, Shan and Karen States are famous for high-value timber, jade and illicit opium trade, being part of the Golden Triangle,” Open Doors’ Monica Ratra told Canadian newspaper The Whig earlier this month.

According to Ratra, the illicit trade benefits both the Myanmar military and the rebel KIA, and “there are even rumours that they tacitly cooperate in order not to stop the money flow”.