Joe Biden calls for Myanmar’s military to relinquish power immediately
- The US president orders a review to consider reimposing sanctions that had been lifted as the nation transitioned to democracy
- Myanmar’s military seized power on Monday in a coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi
US President Joe Biden insisted Monday that Myanmar’s military relinquish the power it had seized during a coup, and warned he could take “appropriate action” if it didn’t, including reimposing sanctions that had been rolled back since the nation first transitioned to democracy in 2011.
Earlier on Monday the country’s military declared a year-long state of emergency, alleging irregularities with the November election that gave the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party a commanding share of parliamentary seats. It handed power to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and reportedly moved to detain Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders.
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said in a statement, using Myanmar’s former name. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.
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“We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” Biden said.
NLD secured 346 seats – more than the 322 seats it needed to form the government – in the November 8 polls. Biden’s warning builds on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s denunciation of the move by Myanmar’s military – known locally as the Tatmadaw – just hours after it moved to take power. Blinken called on the military “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections”.
Myanmar was under military rule from 1962 to 2011, and Yangon was the scene of protests in the 1980s and 2000s that ultimately led to the military agreeing to a transition to democracy. In 2015, Suu Kyi won Myanmar’s first election and became the de facto head of government but the military still had a role to play, retaining control of three ministries.
US lawmakers in both parties also spoke out against the coup.
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the arrests “horrifying” and “a step backwards” for Myanmar.
“The Biden administration must take a strong stand and our partners and all democracies around the world should follow suit in condemning this authoritarian assault on democracy,” McConnell said. “We need to support the people of Burma in their journey toward democracy and impose costs on those who stand in their way.”
Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought “strict economic sanctions, as well as other measures” by the US and other countries against Myanmar’s military leadership if they did not free the elected leaders and remove themselves from government.
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Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also called for sanctions on “the senior military leaders responsible for this coup”.
The events in Myanmar constitute one of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy challenges, presenting a new wrinkle as the president begins to deal with China.
“There will be some who will say we cannot be too tough on Burma because it will give room for the Chinese to consolidate its relationship,” said Walter Lohmann, director of the Asian Studies Centre at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “The truth is that Beijing already has a relationship that far outstrips Washington’s.
“The US should now look to reimpose sanctions lifted or waived beginning with the Obama administration,” Lohman said. “There was always an argument that they were being lifted faster and more broadly than reforms on the ground in Burma justified.”
Many of Biden’s Asia policy team, including its head, Kurt Campbell, worked in the Barack Obama administration, and cited their work to end decades of military rule in Myanmar as a major foreign policy achievement.
Biden, vice-president in that administration, came into office on January 20 promising to work closely with allies on major international challenges, in contrast to former President Donald Trump’s often go-it-alone “America First” approach. The Myanmar crisis could be the first major test of Biden’s resolve for multilateral solutions.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, urged the White House to mobilise a concerted international reaction.
“The US needs to work with allies to speak more clearly, in unison, in terms of ultimatums, to put the Myanmar military on notice of the specific consequences that will occur if their coup is not reversed,” Sifton said, calling for tough sanctions.
Additional reporting by Reuters