The early morning coup that took place in Myanmar on February 1 surprised many longtime observers. After all, only two days before "constitutional compliance" the military had promised to allay growing fears about military intervention following vague threats from the Commander-in-Chief earlier this week. The coup was a major challenge for the new Biden administration as it seeks to reintroduce US values and support for democracy into American foreign policy.
As the demonstrations in Myanmar continue, policymakers around the world are faced with an urgent need to respond. Many Western governments have issued strong statements condemning the actions of the military and demanding the immediate release of State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained members of their National League for Democracy (NLD). In the region itself, however, reactions were generally more reluctant. In Washington, the conversation quickly turned to the Biden government's response options and whether there will be a return to the broad sanctions regimes of the past.
On February 10, US President Joe Biden announced that he had signed an executive order giving him powers to sanction the military leaders behind the coup. During a brief speech at the White House, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden shared his intention to impose sanctions on senior military officials, their families and their business interests. apply strict export controls; and freeze "$ 1 billion in Burmese government funds" in US banks. At the same time, the President stated that US support to the public in Myanmar would continue, including aid to health care organizations and civil society.
It remains unclear who or what bodies the Biden government will impose sanctions on. However, according to the president, a first round of goals will be shared by the end of the week. In his announcement, Biden also alluded to this action as the first in a "series of steps" Washington will take to tackle the military coup, noting that he had consulted with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and his team to order to signal support from both parties.
In order to evaluate Biden's announcement, it is helpful to take a step back and review all the options Washington has to respond to the situation in Myanmar. As a maximalist response, the government could revert to its broad-based ban on US investment and sanctions against companies in Myanmar that wish to export to or work with foreign companies or governments. A similar alternative would be to reintroduce elements of the pre-2016 sanctions regime, including the Junta Anti-Democratic Efforts (JADE) Act of 2008, or even broad-based bans on all US investments and imports of "items" that are a product made in Burma. “With many experts believing that these sanctions have been largely ineffective due to their failure to isolate Myanmar's military from the globe (as well as their severe negative impact on the country's overall economy), this seems like an unlikely prospect in the short term. Indeed, Biden's comments seem to indicate that all measures taken under his administration will be carefully targeted so as not to cause undue harm to the Myanmar public.
It is now more likely that the administration will expand targeted sanctions under a declaration of urgency under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Although the executive order mentioned in Biden's announcement has not yet been made public, it is likely that he has made claims against the IEEPA authorities.
Under the IEEPA, the president can instruct the US Treasury Department's Foreign Assets Control Office to add certain officials to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Individuals list that prohibits US citizens and corporations from dealing with certain individuals. The list may also include companies owned or controlled by targeted individuals or countries. Many of Myanmar's top generals, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, are already on the list by a global Magnitsky designation. However, the White House could aim to add additional military officials, family members or organizations to the list through the IEEPA framework. Biden could also seek to bring back stricter aspects of the previous sanctions regime that the Obama administration suspended (but not permanently lifted), including the JADE Act, which targeted military officials “involved in, or in, the suppression of peaceful political activity other gross human rights violations in Burma or while committing other human rights violations. "
When looking for a balanced answer, the Biden team should consider several guiding principles. As a first principle, the administration should be careful not to cause harm. This means avoiding the kind of sanctions that would destabilize the overall economy and hurt the Myanmar people more than the military, which offers a wide variety of alternatives for maintaining cash flow. The Biden government should continue to make it clear that it supports the economic growth and development of Myanmar in a democratic manner and does not intend to punish the country's people for the actions of the military. In addition, the United States should not only protect but redouble the support to civil society organizations, media groups and activists in the country.
Although the government has announced that it will have "US assets that will benefit the Burmese government," details are still available on how this will work in practice. Biden's reference to military business interests could indicate a package of sanctions against Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corp. , military-owned companies that have generated billions of dollars in unreported revenue going straight into Myanmar's defense budget. According to a report by Amnesty International, leaked internal documents show that Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. remitted approximately $ 16 billion to the military between 1990 and 2010. Another 2020 document filed with the Directorate of Investment and Corporate Management in Myanmar identifies nearly 400,000 shareholders, all of whom have been identified are active or retired military officials. Given the proliferation of these companies and their affiliates in the Myanmar domestic economy, the Biden team will diligently implement such sanctions that do not effectively prohibit doing business in the country or immediately stop all foreign investment (which could have devastating secondary effects) on the citizens).
In addition to targeting the military's wallet, Washington can use the State Department to extend visa bans to the generals and their extended families. Although such restrictions may not move the generals themselves, elite families are often interested in visiting the United States to study, or to do tourism and shopping. The ban on extended families of military officials could create leverage (as well as a potential incentive for cooperation) in negotiating a military withdrawal from civil political space.
As a second principle, the Biden team should keep its promise to work closely with its partners in the region and around the world. To ensure that these measures are effective, it is necessary to work with partners such as the European Union, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Given the recent collaboration of the Indian military with the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar military is called), as well as New Delhi's strategic interest in not having Myanmar returned to Beijing orbit, India could potentially play an oversized role in facilitating dialogue and Finding a way forward playing with the military.
At the same time, Washington should work behind the scenes to enlist the support of its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to facilitate a diplomatic solution and pressure the Tatmadaw to play ball. Although individual countries in the group had mixed responses to the crisis, ASEAN (chaired by Brunei) issued a surprisingly assertive statement calling for dialogue and a return to normal, while Indonesia and Malaysia held a regional meeting for discussion of the coup. The Biden team could also work closely with friends in Singapore to cut off access to Myanmar's financial markets and the overseas banks that military officers reportedly used to hold their reserves.
The ultimate goal of any series of actions should be to develop leverage for any dialogue with the military. Although politically uncomfortable, Washington should be prepared with a private list of potential incentives for the release of prisoners and ensuring a return to dialogue with the NLD on a further path. Early steps indicated that Biden's National Security Team wanted to keep the option to speak face-to-face with the military, but those efforts seemed now to have gone nowhere. The White House reportedly directed the Chairman of the Chief of Staff Mark Milley to reach out to his Naypyidaw counterpart Min Aung Hlaing and urged the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson to get in touch. While the Biden team cannot be seen as a reward for the military's decision to overthrow the legitimately elected civilian government, a positive resolution to this crisis requires an unconventional approach.
Working with the military, even as part of a broader sanctions approach, poses real risks to the Biden government. Human rights groups and prominent politicians in Congress have put pressure on the White House to take a firm stand against the generals by advocating democracy in Myanmar. If the Biden team is perceived as naive trying to engage the Tatmadaw without hoping for results, the pressure for a tougher response increases. At the moment, the Biden administration seems to enjoy bipartisan support for its approach, particularly from McConnell, whose long public friendship with Aung San Suu Kyi has shaped US policy towards Myanmar for the past few decades. If the White House can publicly bring McConnell on board with its proposed plan of action, it should have adequate protection from immediate partisan attacks.
Regardless of the measures taken, Washington must find a balance that meets several difficult criteria at the same time: demonstrate the unwavering support of the people of Myanmar in their struggle for democracy, appease a progressive democratic base, and fend off potential partisan criticism from the right and signal to the generals in Naypyidaw that there are incentives to get their country back on a democratic path.
As hundreds of thousands of protesters take to the streets in Myanmar, the risk of escalating escalation has risen dramatically. The window of time for the Biden government to convince the generals to step back from the abyss of violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations is rapidly closing. Washington's efforts to contain the Tatmadaw's worst impulses will be far more persuasive with allies and partners united in their opposition to the junta. The February 10 sanctions announcement was a good start, but Western sanctions have not affected the Myanmar military in the past. A coordinated response with partners around the world, imposing targeted sanctions while keeping a path open for engagement, provides the best opportunity for a successful diplomatic resolution to this crisis and for maintaining democratic transition in Myanmar.