Biden announces slew of actions against Burmese military junta

More Myanmar penalties to come in coordination with allies

President Joe Biden speaks about Burma Wednesday. (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks about Burma Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Posted February 10, 2021 at 7:26pm

President Joe Biden said Wednesday his administration would impose new sanctions on the leaders of last week’s military coup in Myanmar, with more punitive actions forthcoming including in concert with other countries.

On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, and the elected president, Win Myint, a close ally of hers. The junta, in the country formerly known as Burma, also declared a state of emergency and handed power to itself for one year.

The military was alarmed that it was continuing to lose power in democratic elections after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an even greater share of parliament seats last November than it did in its historic 2015 landslide election victory — the Southeast Asian country’s first after 25 years of junta rule.

“The assault on Burma’s transition to democracy remains an issue of deep and bipartisan concern,” Biden said in brief remarks at the White House. He specifically mentioned his conversations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has long been a supporter of Suu Kyi, and his staff, adding “we welcome their helpful insights.”

The president said he had approved a new executive order, which the State Department subsequently said would be signed and released later this week, that will “enable us to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.”

Loading the player...

Biden said the administration would identify a “first round” of sanctions targets this week. Additionally, the U.S. government will impose unspecified “strong export controls” on Myanmar, and prevent the Burmese junta from “improperly having access” to more than $1 billion in U.S.-based assets. U.S. foreign aid to civil society groups and health care organizations in the country would not be impacted, he said.

“Violence against those asserting their democratic rights is unacceptable and we’re going to keep calling it out,” Biden said. “We’ll be ready to impose additional measures and we’ll continue to work with our international partners.”

Since the summer of 2017, the United States has provided nearly $1.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to deal with the impacts of Myanmar's civil war, which has been particularly disastrous for the country’s ethnic Rohingya population. That includes over $469 million in fiscal 2020 as well as an additional $135 million in “bilateral assistance,” according to figures provided by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

“Importantly as protests grow, Burma’s military leaders need to know that violence against those who peacefully assert their democratic rights will not be tolerated,” Price said during a press briefing following Biden’s remarks. He declined to provide further specifics about the coming penalties for the junta.

In the past week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has discussed the Burmese coup with his counterparts in China, Japan, India and Singapore. Those conversations are geared toward reaching agreement on joint actions to pressure the Burmese junta to relinquish power, Price said.

“This is very much an element of our strategy to engage early, following the coup, and often with our like-minded partners, including those partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” Price said. “We have in the course of that engagement made sure that our close partners know what we are working on … We want to make sure that our efforts are both known to them, and to the extent possible, calibrated with them."

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez applauded the announcement of new sanctions, saying in a statement: “There must be real consequences if Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of Myanmar’s elected leaders are not immediately freed and allowed to resume their rightful place at the head of a civilian government.”

The administration’s announcement of its initial steps to respond to the coup in Myanmar are in line with several of the recommendations made by a group of 14 senators, including five Republicans, in a Friday letter to Blinken.

The group, led by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, Menendez, D-N.J., the committee’s ranking member Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., further recommended that the administration explore possibilities sanctioning companies and conglomerates controlled by the Tatmadaw, ideally in coordination with partner nations. They also pressed for an international pressure campaign aimed at persuading other countries to halt sales of military equipment and training to the Burmese armed forces “for as long as the military suppresses democratic rule.”

The United States does not provide military assistance to Myanmar, whose Buddhist-majority military has a long history of human rights abuses, particularly and most recently against the country’s Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority population. Many experts and some lawmakers argue that the military's campaign against the Rohingya constitutes genocide. The Burmese military has been formally accused of genocide by Gambia in a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice.

In demanding the reinstatement to power of Suu Kyi and her government, Washington now finds itself defending the political rights of the longtime democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who more recently has been the subject of widespread Western disappointment over her defense in international court of the Tatmadaw’s campaign against the Rohingya. Atrocities committed by the Burmese military and local militias have led to the deaths of thousands of Rohingya and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.

Former President Barack Obama in 2016 suspended many U.S. government restrictions on relations with Myanmar as part of a strategy to reward the country for its moves toward civilian rule. But as the human rights situation in the country deteriorated, the Trump administration moved to blacklist several top Burmese military leaders, including the country’s commander-in-chief, for their role in the killings of Rohingya.

Last December, Congress, through the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending law , placed new restrictions on relations with Myanmar, including a prohibition on assistance to Tatmadaw-owned entities and a ban on the sale of U.S. military equipment to the country, according to a January Congressional Research Service brief.