Biden administration officially calls Myanmar coup a ‘coup’

Biden administration officially calls Myanmar coup a ‘coup’

The Biden administration declared Tuesday that the Myanmar military’s overthrow of the country’s civilian leadership met the legal definition of a “coup.” The official designation is significant because it restricts U.S. aid to governments that have taken power by military means.

Aung San Suu Kyi et al. wearing costumes: People hold up images of Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at a protest outside Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.

© Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
People hold up images of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at a protest outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.

As a result, the United States will move to end the little direct financial aid it offers the country’s government, State Department officials said. They added that U.S. assistance that goes directly to Myanmar’s people, including civil society or persecuted Rohingya refugees, will continue, but that the U.S. will be undertaking a broader review of its aid to the country.

According to a government website on U.S. foreign aid, some $185 million was obligated for Myanmar in fiscal year 2020. State Department officials said little of the U.S. assistance goes directly to the government.

President Joe Biden has a range of economic options available: from imposing targeted sanctions on individual military leaders to broader sanctions that hit industrial sectors or companies where the military has control. Visa restrictions, too, are one way to pressure the generals because such sanctions can be applied to the families of the individuals being targeted — a blow to Myanmar’s military officials who, for example, may have children wanting to study in the United States.

The difficulty lies in figuring out how to squeeze military officials — many of whom have few financial accounts in the United States — without hurting the civilian population. Another way Biden could bear down on Myanmar is by imposing “secondary sanctions” that penalize non-Americans who do business in Myanmar. That would have the effect of leading many non-U.S. foreign companies to steer clear of the country.

U.S. officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been trying to reach their counterparts in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. But according to information from U.S. officials so far, there’s been no luck in reaching key figures, including the deposed de facto civilian ruler Aung San Suu Kyi, who is among those detained.

“A very small circle of Burma’s military leaders have chosen their own interests over the will and well-being of the people,“ a State Department official said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We will continue to stand with the people of Burma.”

The United Nations Security Council, meanwhile, held a session to discuss Myanmar on Tuesday, but there were divisions over how to proceed between Western countries and China, who is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and at times has shielded it on the global stage.

Britain, as Security Council president, urged the group’s members to “condemn the military coup” and express “deep concern” over the detention of Myanmar’s civilian leaders including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and civil society, according to a draft text obtained by POLITICO. A tense debate Tuesday morning went over time, after China requested an extension, and ultimately ended without agreement.

“There’s always hope,” said one Security Council national ambassador, “Some countries are claiming they still don’t have instructions (from their national capitals), but work is continuing.”

Myanmar’s generals staged the coup on Monday, just as the country’s newly elected Parliament was due to convene for its first session. The military, which ruled Myanmar for decades before allowing some measure of civilian-led democracy in recent years, alleged that there was fraud in the country’s November elections, which were won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

The coup is a major foreign policy crisis facing Biden just days into his tenure. Biden, who has pledged to promote democracy and human rights globally, has decried the takeover and said his administration is weighing imposing sanctions on the Asian country.

State Department officials who confirmed the coup determination — a legal process that can take some time — said Tuesday that they are in touch with partner and allied nations about the situation in Myanmar.

The United States will work with these other countries “to support respect for democracy and the rule of law in Burma as well as to promote accountability for those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” one State Department official said.

At the request of the White House, Milley reached out to his Burmese counterpart, Min Aung Hlaing, now the de facto leader of Myanmar and commander in chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. However, Milley’s attempts to reach Min Aung Hlaing have been unsuccessful, according to his spokesperson, Colonel Dave Butler.

Milley does not have a direct line to his Myanmar counterpart but reached out through the defense attache at the Myanmar consulate in Washington, D.C., according to a defense official.

The White House also asked Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, to reach out to the Burmese military through military channels, according to National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne. Unfortunately, those channels do not exist, and Davidson has not made any calls to Burmese officials, a defense official said Tuesday.

The U.S. military does not have much leverage with its Myanmar counterparts, because the United States does not give any aid or sell arms to the Myanmar military. Much of the nation’s senior military leaders are already sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, including visa restrictions and individual sanctions.

The two nations have a limited military-to-military relationship due to prior U.S. sanctions and concerns over the brutal crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya population, according to Randy Schriver, who served as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs during the Trump administration.

The two militaries do not exercise together, and only typically only interact in the context of multilateral discussions.

John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said Tuesday that right now he does not anticipate a need for U.S. military action in resolving the conflict. “We have certainly viewed with great alarm what has happened in Burma, but I don’t see a U.S. military role right now,” said Kirby.

There is widespread bipartisan support in Congress for promoting democracy in Myanmar, and already some lawmakers are exploring potential sanctions legislation to punish the military.

State Department officials briefed lawmakers on Monday about the events in Myanmar. A person familiar with the briefing said lawmakers were told that American officials have reached out to allies in Europe and Asia who have contacts with Myanmar’s military but were not able to get in touch. Briefers also noted that several top Myanmar military leaders already face U.S. sanctions and visa restrictions due to human rights abuses.

Schriver called on the Myanmar military to honor the results of the country’s election, noting that the previous period of military rule was a “dark period for the people.” Myanmar was ruled by a military junta for many years until it allowed a limited democratization process that began in the 2000s and brought Suu Kyi’s party to power in 2015.

“We urge the Burmese military to honor the election results, and respect the democratic process and rule of law,” Schriver said in a statement through the Project 2049 Institute. “The Burmese people and the nascent civil society organizations that fought to expand liberty remain in our thoughts during this difficult time.”

Andrew Desiderio and Ryan Heath contributed to this report.

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