The Biden administration has formally determined that the military takeover in Myanmar constitutes a coup d’état, a designation that requires the US to cut its foreign assistance to the country.
“After careful review of the facts and circumstances, we have assessed that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s ruling party, and Win Myint, the duly elected head of government, were deposed in a military coup on February 1,” a State Department official said Tuesday, using another name for Myanmar. “We continue to call on the Burmese military leadership to release them and all other detained civil society and political leaders immediately and unconditionally.”
The United States provides “very little” foreign assistance directly to Myanmar’s government and “the government of Burma, including the Burmese military, is already subject to a number of foreign assistance restrictions, including statutory restrictions on military assistance, due to its human rights record.”
The State Department official, speaking on a call with reporters, said the administration “will undertake a broader review of our assistance programs to ensure they align with recent events.”
That review will begin “immediately” and will “look at any programs that indirectly benefit the military or individual low level officers.”
“At the same time, we will continue programs that benefit the people of Burma directly, including humanitarian assistance and democracy support programs that benefit civil society. A democratic civilian led government has always been Burma’s best opportunity to address the problems the country faces,” the official said.
They also suggested that sanctions in response to the power grab by Myanmar’s armed forces Monday remain on the table.
“As President (Joe) Biden has said, we will take action against those responsible, including through a careful review of our current sanctions posture as it relates to Burma’s military leaders and companies associated with them,” the official said.
Biden warned in a statement the day prior, “The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”
The State Department official did not offer a timeline for potential sanctions. Officials told CNN Monday that the administration could roll out them out as soon as this week, but a decision to pull the trigger would likely be impacted by a desire to move alongside allies.
Congressional aides who were briefed by the State Department Monday told CNN that members of Congress would likely introduce legislation to mandate sanctions if the administration does not impose them.
Myanmar’s top military officials, including armed forces commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, have been sanctioned for their roles in human rights abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The military has been accused of committing atrocities including mass killings and rape against the the Muslim minority population, forcing nearly a million people to flee. The UN has recommended that top military officials face genocide charges. Suu Kyi, one of the now deposed civilian leaders, called reports of genocide “misinformation.”
Myanmar’s armed forces seized control of the country Monday after detaining top government figures, including leader Suu Kyi, after months of increasing friction between the civilian government and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, over alleged election irregularities.
CNN reported on Monday that a debate was taking place within the administration on whether to make the formal determination that a coup had taken place.
The State Department official told reporters Tuesday that they have “not had direct contact with the military on the ground” since the coup, nor have they been in touch with the detained civilian leaders.
“In terms of our ability to talk to members of the (National League for Democracy) party or Aung San Suu Kyi herself, no we’ve not been able to do that,” they said. “Our understanding is that most of the senior officials are under house arrest, and the NLD leadership as well as some of the regional government figures and civil society figures. But we’ve not been able to reach them, we’ll obviously continue to try to do that.”
The official noted that the US has been “in frequent contact with our like-minded allies and partners in the region,” including Japan and India, with whom they’re “having daily ongoing conversations.”
“We certainly appreciate that some other countries have better contact with Burmese military than we do so we’re continuing those conversations,” the official said.