US president urges world to push generals into relinquishing power but experts say sanctions effect will be limited.
The United States has designated the military takeover in Myanmar as a coup, the US State Department said on Tuesday, a move that triggers restrictions on US assistance to the country and could pave the way for sanctions.
The assessment comes a day after US President Joe Biden condemned the military’s removal of Myanmar’s civilian-led government and the detention of the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other officials.
“After a review of all the facts, we have assessed that the Burmese military actions on February 1, having deposed the duly elected head of government, constituted a military coup d’etat,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a Tuesday afternoon briefing, using Myanmar’s former name.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the Burmese military’s detention of civilian government leaders, including State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and civil society leaders,” Price said.
Under US law, Washington will now be forbidden from providing assistance to Myanmar’s government.
But Price said of the $135m in bilateral assistance provided to Myanmar in the 2020 fiscal year, only “a very small portion” goes directly to the government.
“We’re going to work expeditiously to determine the implications for Burma’s military leaders, and for their actions here, but there is a small sliver of that foreign assistance that will actually be implicated,” he said.
On Monday, Biden said US sanctions that had been removed during Myanmar’s decade-long transition towards civilian rule were being reviewed and “appropriate action could be taken”.
The Myanmar military is already under US sanctions over its brutal campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, following a crackdown and resulting exodus in 2017 that the United Nations has labelled a “genocide”.
A US State Department official, speaking to reporters during a background briefing earlier on Tuesday, said Washington would maintain humanitarian programmes in Myanmar, including for Rohingya, but will also “undertake a broader review of our assistance” to the country.
“As President 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.
The official also said Washington has not been in direct contact with the coup leaders in Myanmar or the deposed civilian government leaders.
The military’s takeover has been condemned by the UN and international organisations, with close attention being paid to how China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner, will respond. China has said that it “noted” the coup.
The coup has spurred bipartisan agreement in the US, with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he hoped even more sanctions would be imposed against the armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw.
He added: “Congress has already given the executive branch the authority it actually needs to swiftly apply even more sanctions to the military.”
The US contributed $1.5bn to Myanmar since 2012 to support democracy, internal peace and violence-hit communities, according to the State Department.
Aung San Suu Kyi‘s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the country’s November 8 election, but the army, which is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament and has a proxy party, cried foul.
The military has claimed its takeover is a response to election fraud, although there has been no evidence of wrongdoing. It also said its actions were justified under the 2008 constitution, which was written by the armed forces.