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US ratchets up pressure on Myanmar’s military after its bloodiest weekend since the coup

Reports indicate Myanmar’s junta killed about 140 people over the weekend. The Biden administration is responding with trade restrictions.

A relative cries during the funeral of a protester in Myanmar on March 29.
AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is stepping up its actions to punish Myanmar’s ruling military junta in the wake of a bloody weekend targeting civilians protesting against the February military coup.

On Saturday, the military commemorated Armed Forces Day by killing about 140 people — including six children — in 44 cities and towns amid nationwide peaceful protests, according to local reports and activists. One of the children, 11-year-old Aye Myat Thu, was buried with her drawings and toys as her family mourned beside her.

Thousands of people also fled into neighboring Thailand to escape the violence.

It’s the largest number of people killed in a single day since the military ousted the country’s democratic government in a February 1 coup. Some 500 people have been killed in total since the military seized control.

Pressure from the international community on Myanmar’s military to relinquish control has been growing, with the United Nations special rapporteur for the country recently calling the junta’s campaign “mass murder.”

Now, the United States is taking further action.

On Monday, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the Biden administration would “suspend all US trade engagement” with Myanmar that occurs under a 2013 bilateral trade agreement. That won’t stop all $1.4 billion in trade between the two countries, but it will curb the trade relationship, namely by ending US support for initiatives that helped Myanmar integrate back into the world economy.

That may not seem like much, but experts on Myanmar’s conflict like Cornell University’s Darin Self say the move “will sting” because “cutting off trade is meaningful.”

Later on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “deeply concerned” about the “abhorrent violence” seen in Myanmar.

“We continue to make clear that we will impose costs on the military regime for the deadly violence against peaceful protesters and the suppression of human rights,” Psaki continued, noting the new trade restrictions “will remain in effect until the return of democratically elected government.”

All this adds to what the Biden administration has already done since the coup, including putting sanctions on Myanmar’s ruling generals and two major conglomerates run by the military.

Experts I spoke to say these are important moves to make, as they will surely hurt the military’s finances and underscore America’s desire to see the return of democratic government in Myanmar.

Beyond sanctions, “suspending trade is one of the few tools the United States has,” Self noted. After that, though, the US will have diminishing ways to actually apply pressure to the military junta. Short of President Joe Biden authorizing some kind of military intervention — a highly unlikely move — the chances of changing the situation on the ground are minimal.

If the US wanted to form a UN-backed coalition to intervene on humanitarian grounds, experts say Russia and China — two other permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council — would almost certainly deny that proposal to maintain their ties with the junta and mitigate the risk of widespread regional violence.

The US did make significant moves on Monday to help the situation in Myanmar. Few, though, believe they will end the military’s campaign against protesters who continue to fill the nation’s streets.