US slaps sanctions on Myanmar in response to military coup

People protest against the military coup in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 11, 2021.
People protest against the military coup in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 11, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS)  –  The United States on Thursday (Feb 11) imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s acting president and several other military officers and warned there could be more economic punishment as Washington responds to the military coup.

The US Treasury Department said it targeted eight people, including the defence minister, three companies in the jade and gems sector, and updated sanctions on the top two military officials, accusing them of playing a leading role in overthrowing Myanmar’s democratically-elected government.

But Washington stopped short of including the entire Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), the military’s conglomerates that are prevalent throughout Myanmar’s economy.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday approved an executive order for new sanctions on those responsible for the coup in Myanmar, also known as Burma, that ousted the civilian-led government and detained elected leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The Feb 1 coup was a direct assault on Burma’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement.

“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,” Yellen added.

Thursday’s action designated Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military Min Aung Hlaing and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win under Biden’s executive order. Both were previously hit with sanctions in 2019 over allegations of abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

Others listed were six members of the National Defence and Security Council and four military officials announced as members of the State Administration Council by the military, including Defence Minister Mya Tun Oo.

The three companies named by Washington – Myanmar Ruby Enterprise, Myanmar Imperial Jade and Cancri (Gems and Jewellery)  – were identified by a UN mission on Myanmar in 2019 as part of the MEHL conglomerate.

The White House said the sanctions imposed on Thursday do not need to be permanent, urging Myanmar’s military to“immediately restore power to the democratically elected government, end the state of emergency, release all those unjustly detained, and ensure peaceful protesters are not met with violence.”

Suu Kyi’s party won a 2015 election but the transition to democracy was brought to a halt by the coup that ousted her government as it was preparing to begin its second term after her National League for Democracy (NLD) swept a Nov 8 election.

The military cited election fraud as justification for its takeover. The electoral commission dismissed accusations of fraud.

Also on Thursday, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said it is immediately redirecting US$42.2 million of assistance away from work that would have benefited Myanmar’s government.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities and towns in the largest demonstrations in Myanmar for more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated with bloody army crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.