The Biden administration will impose sanctions on the military leaders of the coup in Myanmar and freeze $1bn in government assets held in the US, as it urged others to join the push for an “immediate return to democracy” in the country.
President Joe Biden made the announcement on Wednesday in a short speech at the White House, framing it as Washington’s effort to “begin imposing consequences” following last week’s coup in Myanmar.
“The world is watching you,” Biden said.
“The strong and unified message emerging from the United States has been essential, in our view, to encouraging other countries to join us in pressing for [an] immediate return to democracy,” he added.
The US response to Myanmar’s coup represents an early test of Biden’s campaign promise to put human rights at the core of US foreign policy and rebuild traditional alliances in the wake of the Trump era, which gave short shrift to both.
Growing confrontations between police and protesters in several cities across Myanmar have raised the spectre of a repeat of the violent crackdowns used against past democratic movements, which prompted the international community to impose sanctions during the country’s final years of military rule, which ended in 2011.
Biden said the US would identify the first round of targets for sanctions this week and impose strong export controls on Myanmar. It will also freeze US assets that benefit its government but will maintain support for healthcare, civil society groups and other areas that he said directly benefited the people of Myanmar.
Biden added that he had consulted both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including speaking to Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican. The president also said the US played a leading role in bringing together the UN Security Council to issue a statement in support of parliamentarians in Myanmar last week.
He reiterated his call for the release of democratic political leaders and activists, including state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint.
Myanmar’s military has faced growing international condemnation over the coup and foreign investors have begun pulling out of business partnerships with companies the army controls.
“The military must relinquish [the] power it seized and demonstrate respect for the rule of the people of Burma, as expressed in their November 8 election,” said Biden.
The UN Human Rights Council, which the Biden administration has pledged to rejoin as an observer, said it planned to convene a special session in Geneva on Friday to discuss “the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar”.
Additional reporting by John Reed in Bangkok and Thompson Chau in Yangon