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February 3, 2022

The United States will Ratchet Up Pressure on Myanmar

By: Derek Chollet

Derek Chollet is the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State and a senior policy advisor to the Secretary of State. 



One year ago, the Burmese (Myanmar) military launched a coup that reversed a decade of democratic and economic gains and led this country at the heart of Asia to the brink of collapse.

The past year has been disastrous: the regime has killed nearly 1,500 people, detained more than 10,000, tortured or sexually abused countless innocents, and displaced over 400,000 inside Burma, leading to thousands more fleeing to neighbouring countries.

The December 2021 “Christmas Massacre” in Kayah state, where the military killed and burned at least three dozen men, women, and children, including aid workers, is only the latest of its many horrifying acts. Its economic malpractice and cruelty in managing Covid-19 have compounded this misery and left millions in desperate need of aid.

It did not have to be this way. In November 2020, Burma held credible multiparty elections that, despite some problems, overwhelmingly endorsed civilian rule and the progress elected officials had made on many of Burma’s domestic challenges.

Indeed, 12 days before the coup, the Biden-Harris administration took office planning to work closely with Burma to support its nascent democracy. But the Burmese military had other ideas.

The United States’ response to the coup has been swift and bipartisan. The Biden-Harris administration and Congress have worked tirelessly with our allies and partners – especially Asean – to pressure the regime to cease violence and release all those unjustly detained, restore Burma’s path to inclusive democracy, and deliver life-saving humanitarian aid to its people.

Only a democratic, civilian-led government can hope to address Burma’s internal political and economic challenges. To this end, we continue to pressure the regime. With new actions announced this week, the United States has now sanctioned 65 individuals and sanctioned or placed export controls on 26 entities, among them top military commanders, senior regime members, and businesses that generate revenue or procure arms for the regime.

And we have worked closely with our allies and partners – in Asia, Europe, and at the Group of Seven and the United Nations – to deny the regime the international access and credibility its leaders so desperately crave to justify their oppressive rule.

We have also supported Asean’s efforts to promote dialogue and engage all parties, including the wrongly imprisoned Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and other representatives of Burma’s deposed government, ethnic minority, civil society, and pro-democracy leaders.

Unfortunately, the regime has continued its brutal campaign of violence and shown no willingness to heed the clear demands from Burma’s people and the international community. Therefore, the United States strongly supports Asean’s decision to invite only non-political Burmese representatives to high-level meetings.

US officials also regularly engage with the pro-democracy movement, including the opposition National Unity Government, National Unity Consultative Council, ethnic armed organisations, and others. We urge our allies and partners to do the same.

At the same time, we have prioritised aid to the people of Burma. Since the coup, the US has provided more than US$434 million (S$585 million) in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable communities in Burma and those who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, especially to Rohingya refugee communities.

The Secretary of Homeland Security designated Burma for Temporary Protected Status to allow Burmese citizens in the United States who fear persecution to remain. And our diplomats have accelerated on-the-ground efforts in Burma, along its borders, and in the international system to counter the regime’s attempts to limit the unhindered, impartial distribution of life-saving aid – including Covid-19 assistance – to all of Burma’s people, no matter where they live or whom they support.

These efforts have directly supported the people of Burma and their democratic aspirations. But much work remains to be done this year.

This includes ratcheting up pressure on the regime through targeted sanctions and by limiting the regime’s access to arms. We will also deepen and broaden our engagement with individuals and organisations in Burma working to build a common vision for an inclusive, multiparty democracy.

We will continue to play our part in creating conditions for peaceful dialogue by supporting Asean and empowering the new UN special envoy for Burma.

We will continue providing life-saving humanitarian assistance, and we will invest more in Burma’s next generation of pro-democracy leaders as we re-centre our aid programmes to empower Burma’s civil society. And we will stay closely coordinated with leaders in Congress, in the humanitarian community, and in non-profit organisations to amplify our collective impact.

The people of Burma have struggled to fight off the yoke of military rule since the country’s first coup in 1962. Sixty years later and on the first anniversary of yet another coup, we must remain clear-eyed about the challenges ahead – and just as determined to work with our partners, inside and outside Burma, to overcome them. Burma and its people deserve nothing less.

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