The United States said Tuesday it considered the military roundup of civilian leaders in Myanmar a coup, setting the stage for sanctions and other measures targeting what State Department officials said was “the very small circle of military generals” responsible.
The military power grab poses a challenge for the two-week-old Biden administration, which wants both to support wobbly democracy movements globally but to avoid driving countries like Myanmar toward China.
And with Myanmar’s military leaders already under U.S. sanctions over the brutal campaign against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, it was unclear how much additional impact any new penalties would have.
Biden administration officials previously had held off on officially classifying the military’s weekend roundup as an outright takeover, and the country’s leaders said in a televised address they were taking power for a one-year state of emergency. State Department officials said Tuesday they were satisfied the move met the legal definition of a coup.
Humanitarian assistance to Myanmar’s people would not be affected by whatever penalties the U.S. decides on, a State Department official said. The officials briefed reporters on condition they not be identified.
The weekend military detentions targeted the country’s civilian leader, Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and others. The generals cited claims of fraud in November elections, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won by a landslide.
The roundups upended years of internationally backed efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar, which had been emerging from a half-century of military rule and international isolation. After street protests against the military dictatorship, the generals allowed elections in 2015 that were won by Suu Kyi’s party.
The State Department official said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in Myanmar’s latest elections. The United States believed the military’s real impetus for grabbing back power was to prevent the elected parliament from meeting as scheduled on Monday, the official said.
The official rejected a suggestion that the takeover showed international democracy promotion in Myanmar had been a failure, saying the country and its civil society had opened up and progressed in other ways as well.
The White House has requested $109 million in aid for Myanmar for 2021.
The impact of any new U.S. penalties against the military is likely to be minor. The United States already has imposed sanctions upon or otherwise penalized many of the country’s military leaders and military overall. That was for vicious attacks that have sent hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority fleeing the country.
President Joe Biden on Monday called the latest military action an assault on democracy and the rule of law there. “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” Biden said.
The Biden administration is seeking to restore the United States’ position as a global leader, after four years in which President Donald Trump withdrew from cooperation with longtime U.S. allies and devoted his international attention to authoritarian leaders in North Korea, Russia and elsewhere.
The new administration has sought to turn its main foreign-policy focus to ever more influential and economically powerful China, instead. U.S. officials have said they fear moving away from relations with any one government, country or region — as now with Myanmar’s military coup leaders — would leave an opening for Chinese influence.