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Myanmar to Face US Sanctions After Military Coup

After a military coup led to mass arrests for hundreds of Myanmar’s democratic leaders, Biden announced punitive actions Wednesday, including cutting off generals' access to U.S.-held funds.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Pressing for the country’s “immediate return to democracy,” President Joe Biden announced U.S. action against Myanmar Wednesday after a military coup last month that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of the country’s democratic party leaders.

“Today, I call on the Burmese military to immediately release democratic political leaders and activists, including [state counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, the president,” Biden said, using the former name of the country now known as Myanmar, at an afternoon press conference.

To encourage this return to democracy, Biden said the U.S. government will cut off the ruling generals’ access to $1 billion in Myanmar government funds held in the United States and freeze U.S. assets and exports that benefit the Myanmar government. In addition, Biden said he will issue an executive order “to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.”

“We will identify the first round of targets this week,” Biden said, noting that the U.S. will continue to support health care, civil society groups, and other areas of the country that benefit the people of Myanmar directly. 

These actions are the first steps taken by Biden since he threatened in early February to impose new sanctions on the country following its Jan. 31 coup, which occurred as Myanmar leaders gathered for the first session of Parliament since the country’s 2020 election. 

Tensions had been high in the country as the National League for Democracy party had taken 396 out of 476 seats in the combined upper and lower houses in the election, and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, had launched unsubstantiated allegations of massive voter fraud. Citing a lack of evidence, the country’s Union Election Commission rejected these allegations in late January.

Buddhist monks lead a protest march against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Protesters continued to gather Wednesday morning in Mandalay breaching Myanmar's new military rulers' decrees that effectively banned peaceful public protests in the country's two biggest cities. (AP Photo)

Biden instructed Wednesday that “the military must relinquish the power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma, as expressed in their November 8 election.”

After taking power, the military appointed the army’s previous vice president Myint Swe as the country’s president. Myint Swe then handed power to Myanmar’s top military commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as allowed for during national emergencies under the country’s 2008 constitution. The commander, who has been in charge of the armed forces since 2011, has been previously blacklisted for “serious human rights abuse” namely for his role a few years ago in a military genocide of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority.

Biden said that the United States will be ready to impose additional measures if needed and plans to continue to apply pressure to the country’s government alongside its allies, noting that the United Nations Security Council issued a statement last week in support of Myanmar’s democracy.

“As protests grow, violence against those asserting their democratic rights is unacceptable. And we're going to keep calling it out,” Biden said. “The people of Burma are making their voices heard. And the world is watching.”

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