Biden Warns Myanmar Coup Leaders of Renewed U.S. Sanctions

President Joe Biden said the U.S. could reinstate sanctions on Myanmar if the Southeast Asian country’s military doesn’t “immediately relinquish the power they have seized” in a coup and release activists and officials.

“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said Monday in a statement that called on the generals to release activists and officials, lift restrictions on telecommunications and refrain from violence. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”

The coup in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, could prove to be an early test case of the Biden’s vow to defend democracy “wherever it is under attack” -- a line he repeated on Monday. If carried out, the policy would represent an abrupt shift from the Trump administration, which often muted traditional criticism of authoritarian governments.

It’s not clear how much impact the threat of additional U.S. sanctions would have on Myanmar’s military leaders, many of whom were already hit by the Trump administration for a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims and remain on good terms with China -- the country’s largest trading partner. Broader sanctions like those imposed before the country’s shift to democracy more than a decade ago are likely to hit Myanmar’s 55 million citizens, many of whom overwhelmingly voted for the party of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Sanctions are but one of the tools available to the international community,” Andrew Heyn, a former British ambassador to Myanmar, told Bloomberg Television. “It is so important that the international community, as it has done so far, really makes clear that this is unacceptable.”

The World Bank on Tuesday said it was “gravely concerned” about events in Myanmar, calling the military’s actions a “major setback to the country’s transition and its development prospects.” The institution has funded projects ranging from electrification to education to Covid-19 relief.

Suu Kyi on Monday urged her supporters to oppose the army’s move, calling it “an attempt to bring the nation back under the military dictatorship without any care for the Covid-19 pandemic people are facing.” The election commission last week labeled the vote transparent and fair, and in 2015 the military had accepted her party’s landslide election win.

Suu Kyi is being confined to her home and is in good health, according to Kyi Toe, a member of the National League for Democracy. The party on Tuesday issued a statement demanding her release along with other detainees, as well as recognition of the 2020 election results.

New Ministers

The coup is “an act that tarnishes the history of the state and the military” and neglects the sovereignty of the people, the statement said.

So far there’s been no sign of protests in Myanmar’s major cities. Under the military junta that ruled for decades prior to the constitution adopted in 2008, periodic bouts of pro-democracy protests led to deadly crackdowns by soldiers. The military on Monday pledged to hold elections after a 12-month state of emergency.

Myanmar’s military on Monday night formally replaced Suu Kyi as foreign minister as it installed 11 new ministers to cabinet posts. A state-run television broadcast announced the new foreign minister as Suu Kyi’s predecessor, Wunna Maung Lwin.

Among the cabinet appointments are top officials aligned with the military, while others were ex-ministers in the military-backed government of former President Thein Sein. That includes Win Shein, who previously held the post of finance and planning minister and was reappointed to the position.

As of the end of last year, China stood as Myanmar’s second-biggest investor behind Singapore with $21.5 billion in approved foreign capital. Beijing also accounts for about a third of all Myanmar’s trade -- about 10 times more than the U.S.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday called Myanmar a “friendly neighbor” and urged all sides to “properly manage differences.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.