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Biden announces sanctions on Myanmar’s military in response to the coup

US-led sanctions on Myanmar worked once to move the country toward democracy. Could they work again?

Protesters face off with Myanmarese police during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 9.
AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden has announced that the United States is imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s military following its overthrow of the country’s civilian leadership in a coup last week.

Speaking from the White House on Wednesday, Biden detailed a three-pronged response his administration would be pursuing. The first is an executive order that imposes sanctions on the military leaders who organized and launched the coup, as well as their business interests and close family members. The first round of targets will be identified this week, he said.

The Biden administration will also block the regime from accessing its roughly $1 billion held in the US, though American funding for civil society groups and the most vulnerable will continue. And it will impose new export controls and freeze unnamed assets that could benefit Myanmar’s military-led government.

Biden called on the regime to release civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is among hundreds of detained pro-democratic officials; he also said the tens of thousands of citizens demanding a return to democracy must be allowed to protest without the threat of violence or imprisonment.

For Biden to end these reprimands, he said the military should relinquish the power it seized and allow Myanmar to go back to the more democratic government it overthrew.

“The world is watching,” Biden said. “We’ll be ready to impose additional measures” should the military’s leadership not heed America’s demands and will “work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”

The president signaled moves like these were coming. In a statement responding to the coup last week, Biden said: “The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”

With that review over, Biden has taken his first real step to punish Myanmar’s military-led regime.

“That’s serious targeting,” said Amy Liu, an associate professor at the University of Texas Austin, noting the similarities between these reprimands and what the Obama administration imposed on Iran for failing to halt progress on its nuclear program. “Those sanctions brought Iran to the table,” eventually leading to the 2015 nuclear deal. “So maybe it’ll work?”

Sanctions helped move Myanmar to a more democratic government. They could do so again.

Myanmar has toggled between military and civilian leadership since 1948, though the Tatmadaw, as the country’s armed forces are formally known, has remained the most powerful institution the entire time. The US and other nations thus placed sanctions on Myanmar for decades, hoping those punishments would compel the generals to enact pro-democracy reforms and stop abusing human rights.

They worked, at least for a time. Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989 for leading a pro-democracy movement against the military, was finally released in 2010. Then the junta gave up some of its control in 2011 and governed alongside Suu Kyi’s NLD.

That arrangement was quasi-democratic at best: The nation’s 2008 military-drafted constitution gave the Tatmadaw at least 25 percent of the seats in the legislature, no matter what. That was crucial, because no amendments to the new constitution could be passed without over 75 percent of lawmakers voting for them.

The armed forces, in effect, could veto any attempts to change the game. That gave Myanmar’s government a window dressing of democracy — the party in power could run the day-to-day aspects of domestic and foreign policy — while never actually threatening the Tatmadaw’s hold on power.

But then the NLD grew popular, trouncing the military’s political arm during the 2015 legislative election — leading the US to lift sanctions the following year — and then again in 2020. It proved Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party were not only popular, but also had a mandate to strip the military of its autocratic authorities. It helped that the US and other countries lifted the sanctions due to Suu Kyi’s leadership.

That in part led her to seek bolder reforms. In March 2020, for example, Suu Kyi proposed reducing the number of allocated seats for military officers in Parliament. She received majority support for the measure in the legislature — but the Tatmadaw vetoed the move.

Ultimately, Suu Kyi’s growing influence and threat to the military’s hold on power led the Tatmadaw to launch a coup, hours before a new NLD-led Parliament was scheduled to sit for the first time. Now much of the country has taken to city streets demanding a return to civilian leadership and democratic rule.

Biden’s actions, then, essentially bring the whole situation back to the pre-2011 era: with the pro-democracy movement weakened and its leaders detained, and the military in full control of the country but under pressure.

Some are skeptical Biden’s decision will have much impact. “Even the sanctions used in the Obama era only got things to a very bounded form of democratization in the 2010s,” said Darin Self, a Cornell University expert on Southeast Asian militaries.

What’s more, he added, “people in Myanmar and Myanmar watchers are quite worried that large sanctions would impose severe costs on the average citizen, which couldn’t be worse timed.”

But if Biden’s actions succeed, and that’s a big if, America’s moves won’t immediately change things, experts expect. “Even in the case of Iran,” said the University of Texas’ Liu, “it still took a while for it to work.”

The world may be confronting a military-led Myanmar for quite some time. It’s an especially troubling prospect for the millions living under a newly invigorated dictatorship.