By CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Dozens of Myanmar health care workers sing in support of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The U.S. is implementing its first penalties against Myanmar’s military leaders after declaring their overthrow of the democratically elected government last week a coup d’état.
With financial sanctions on 10 leaders and three military-owned businesses, re-imposed restrictions on U.S. exports, and the diversion of over $42 million of U.S. assistance, President Joe Biden hopes to send a strong signal to the military to reverse course. But his response has also become a signal to other governments that may be watching closely as the new president faces his first foreign policy crisis.
Key to that, Biden and his top advisers have said, is working with “like-minded allies and partners,” but Thursday’s actions were taken alone, and some analysts say the U.S. penalties are likely to have little effect on Myanmar’s military leaders who have defied external pressure for decades, especially without other countries’ involvement so far.
Still, the swift action, just 10 days after the U.S. State Department’s “coup” declaration, signals to the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, that the international community is watching, as thousands took to the streets again Thursday in sustained protests.
“We are also prepared to take additional action should Burma’s military not change course. If there is more violence against peaceful protesters, the Burmese military will find that today’s sanctions are just the first,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.
Biden had announced on Wednesday that he approved an executive order, but he didn’t sign the document until Thursday morning. Shortly after, the Treasury announced it was sanctioning 10 military commanders, including commander-in-chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, as well as his deputy, Soe Win.
Both men are already under U.S. sanctions for their roles in the military’s attacks on the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority that the United Nations has said the military tried to exterminate in August 2017 through genocide after decades of oppression.
The Treasury also sanctioned Myint Swe, the country’s first vice president, and three other lieutenant generals who were part of the coup and four military leaders who were named to cabinet positions in the junta’s new government.
Beyond these 10 men, the U.S. also has frozen the assets of three businesses that are controlled by the military. It’s unclear what U.S.-based assets these companies would have, but this will also tighten their access to other markets as banks and institutions in closer economic partners like Japan and Singapore seek to avoid U.S. sanctions.
But three companies are just a small portion of the military’s deep reach into Myanmar’s economy, with a recent report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights detailing over 130 businesses that are owned, controlled or closely affiliated with the military’s two main conglomerates.
Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. also would freeze $1 billion of the military’s assets that are held in the U.S. — a move that could have more bite.
Action from regional powers like Singapore, Indonesia and Japan, however, would have more teeth, given their closer economic ties to Myanmar. But while the leaders of neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia have urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to meet urgently, according to The Associated Press, the alliance is unlikely to because Myanmar, itself a member, could block a special session and insist the group respect its principle of non-interference.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News on Wednesday that the U.S. and its partners would be “collectively rolling out” steps to “impose steep and profound costs on those responsible for this coup,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Singaporean and Japanese counterparts this week about Myanmar, briefing them in advance of Biden’s action, Price said.
In addition to sanctions, Biden imposed other financial penalties, immediately redirecting $42.4 million of U.S. assistance to the country that benefited the government. Instead, those funds will be used to “support and strengthen civil society,” acting USAID administrator Gloria Steele announced.
The Commerce Department also said it has re-imposed export restrictions on U.S. products to Myanmar’s military, security forces and ministries of defense and home affairs. Some exports will be permitted if they receive a license, but the agency is also reviewing additional restrictions, it said, including a ban on U.S. “military end use” and “military intelligence end use” equipment and technology.
“With its limited leverage, U.S. sanctions are unlikely to substantially alter the coup leaders’ calculus or impose enough costs to restore democratic rule,” said Lucas Myers of the Wilson Institute, a U.S. think tank in Washington. “The severity of the military’s response to the protests could trigger greater international opposition to the coup, but the United States will have its work cut out for it in coordinating a united international response.”
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