US president calls for international solidarity in confronting generals who have seized power in country
Joe Biden has threatened to resume sanctions on Myanmar following the military coup and the suspension of democracy, and called for international solidarity in confronting the country’s generals.
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” Biden said in a written statement addressing the first foreign policy crisis of his presidency.
The US lifted sanctions on Myanmar in October 2016 after it held elections, established a civilian government and took other steps toward restoring democracy, although targeted sanctions remained on certain military officers.
“The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” Biden’s statement said, adding: “The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, would not say whether measures other than sanctions were being considered but said the US was in “intensive consultations at multiple levels” with its allies and partners around the world.
By contrast, the Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson merely noted the coup and refused to discuss whether China, which has substantial oil and gas interests in Myanmar, had warned against such a move when the Chinese foreign minister met its military leadership last month after the heavy defeat of its proxy party at the polls.
“We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation,” the foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
“China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
In the meeting last month between Myanmar’s military chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who has assumed power, and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, the general set out his claims that the November election had been fraudulent, citing irregularities that echoed many of the claims made by Donald Trump about his election defeat to Biden in the same month.
Champa Patel of the Chatham House thinktank said: “China will not welcome news of the coup. The Chinese have warm relations with [Aung San Suu Kyi] that have deepened as western countries criticised her civilian government’s response to the Rohingya crisis. The military, on the other hand, is perceived as having a more independent streak that sought to balance against Chinese influence.”
Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines largely followed China on Monday by saying the issue was internal to Myanmar.
The UK ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, has announced she is holding an urgent debate on the Myanmar crisis at the security council on Tuesday. The UK has taken over the monthly rolling presidency of the security council for February.
A closed-door meeting had been scheduled for 4 February, but the crisis has led to an earlier meeting at which calls will be made for a UN mission to be sent to the country.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, condemned the coup as a serious blow to democratic reforms in the country. The UN has been at the heart of the so far largely fruitless efforts to arrange for tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees stuck in camps in Bangladesh to return to Myanmar.
Bangladesh called for peace and stability in Myanmar and said it still hoped its neighbour would make genuine efforts to move forward the stalled process of voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. “We have been persistent in developing mutually beneficial relations with Myanmar and have been working with Myanmar for the voluntary, safe and sustained repatriation of the Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh,” the ministry of foreign affairs said.
In the UK, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, tweeted: “I condemn the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar.” He said the vote must be respected.
The reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner, has been diminished dramatically in the west due to her approach to the Rohingya crisis, including when she defended Myanmar during a genocide case at the international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Her supporters claim the relatively slow progress towards reform in her country has been proven justified by a coup that she had warned was always on the horizon.
There had been hopes her landslide win in the November elections would embolden her to show greater independence from the military.
In a longer statement, the Foreign Office said: “The UK condemns the state of emergency imposed by the Myanmar military on 1 February, and the detention of members of the civilian government and civil society, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The UK calls on the military to respect the rule of law and human rights, and release those unlawfully detained.”
Myanmar has had two coups since independence from Britain in 1948, one in 1962 and another in 1988. The country is deeply divided on ethnic grounds, bristling with excess weapons and heavily dependent on overseas aid.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for east Asia under Barack Obama, who fostered close ties with Aung San Suu Kyi, said another military takeover in Myanmar would be a severe blow to democracy in the region.
“This is a huge setback – not only for democracy in Myanmar, but for US interests. It’s yet another reminder that the extended absence of credible and steady US engagement in the region has emboldened anti-democratic forces.”