The US has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders and frozen US$1 billion in funds held in the US by the country’s government after a coup that toppled civilian officials including Aung San Suu Kyi, President Joe Biden said on Wednesday.
Biden also announced that he would restrict US exports to the Southeast Asian nation to impose “consequences on the leaders of the coup”, adding that “support for health care, civil society groups and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly” would not be cut.
“As protests grow, violence against those asserting their democratic rights is unacceptable and we’re going to keep calling it out. The people of Burma are making their voices heard and the world is watching,” he said, using the country’s former name, as is standard practice for the US government.
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“We’ll be ready to impose additional measures, and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts,” he said.
Outbreaks of violence in Myanmar in response to the coup are possible, according to a report published last week by the US Congressional Research Service.
“Peaceful demonstrations reportedly have arisen across the country, including in the nation’s ethnic minority areas,” the report said. “Many of the nation’s medical workers staged a walkout on February 3, raising the possibility of a general strike. Some [ethnic armed organizations including Karen and Rakhine rebels] have issued statements opposing the coup.”
Biden’s remarks follow his warning last week to take “appropriate action”, including reimposing sanctions that had been rolled back since the nation first transitioned to democracy in 2011, if Myanmar’s military refused to relinquish the power it seized on February 1.
Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lauded Biden’s announcement.
“There must be real consequences if Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of Burma’s elected leaders are not immediately freed and allowed to resume their rightful place at the head of a civilian government,” Menendez said.
“I look forward to continuing to work with President Biden and Secretary Blinken as we return our values to the forefront of our foreign policy and to stand with the people of Burma in the face of military oppression and to assure robust forward-leaning U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” he added, referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
American exports to Myanmar have risen seven-fold since the democratic transition to US$338 million last year, from US$48.9 million in 2011, according to US Census Bureau data.
The US Trade Representative’s office ranked Myanmar as America’s 115th largest export market in 2019, noting that more than half of US exports to the country are agricultural products including soybean meal, wheat, and distiller grains.
Myanmar’s military takeover began with the pre-emptive detention of senior government officials and politicians, including Suu Kyi, and handed power to the commander in chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Many thousands of people have swarmed the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city for the past week, defying the military regime’s ban on protests, to demand the release of Suu Kyi. Officers dispersed crowds elsewhere with tear gas and rubber bullets, and ramped up their harassment of the ousted leader’s party, according to reports from the country by Agence France-Presse.
“The fact that we continue to see these demonstrations throughout the streets in Burma indicate where the Burmese people are, what their aspirations for democracy are. We will stand with them,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
“I think what we are most concerned with is the restoration of civilian leadership and putting an end to these antidemocratic actions, this coup,” he added.
Biden said he would identify Myanmar military officials on the sanctions list “this week”.
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