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After Coup In Myanmar, Biden Says U.S. Sanctions Target Military Leaders


President Joe Biden is using one of the preferred tools of his predecessor to punish military leaders in Myanmar - sanctions. The U.S. will freeze about $1 billion worth of Myanmar government assets held in the United States. Military leaders took control of the country in a coup earlier this month. Yesterday, Biden called for a return to democracy there.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The military must relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma as expressed in their November 8 election.

PFEIFFER: The party of the deposed civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, swept those elections. She was detained in the coup. And for the past six days, protesters have filled streets throughout the country.

Reporter Michael Sullivan has been following the events in Myanmar and joins us now from his base in neighboring Thailand. Good morning, Michael.


PFEIFFER: Who exactly do these new sanctions target?

SULLIVAN: We don't know for sure. The administration says details will come later this week, but I think it's pretty safe to say the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is at the top of the list, along with a small circle of subordinates, basically the same bunch probably who were sanctioned by the U.S. in 2019 for their role in the brutal crackdown against the Muslim minority Rohingya amid allegations of genocide.

President Biden also said the sanctions might not be limited to just the generals, but include family members and business interests, too. It's not clear if that meant the family's business interests or the military's, like the two very, very large military-run companies involved in all sorts of businesses - the jade trade, telecom, banks, et cetera - some of which have foreign investors or partners who came after Western sanctions started being lifted in 2012 at the beginning of what looked then to be the start of Myanmar's transition to democratic rule. Oh, well.

PFEIFFER: Michael, Myanmar is closer to China and other Southeast Asian countries than it is to the U.S. So considering that, how effective can these U.S. sanctions be?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Well, that's a good question. I mean, President Biden says he wants to work with international partners to urge other nations to join in these efforts, but it's going to be a slog, not just with China, but with other countries in the region and beyond. Singapore, Japan, Thailand all jumped in after the opening in 2012, in some cases earlier. And there's lots of money to be made in Myanmar and a lot to lose by turning against the generals.

But about China, it might not be happy with the coup either. It got along just fine with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. And there are some reports the military thought Suu Kyi and China were getting on far too well. Myanmar's generals don't really trust China, don't like it, in part because of their own long fight against communist insurgents. And even today, China is said to provide weapons to some of the minority ethnic groups fighting Myanmar's military for more autonomy. China liked things the way they were with Aung San Suu Kyi; the military, maybe not so much.

PFEIFFER: Since Biden announced the sanctions on Wednesday, have the military leaders in Myanmar said anything about that?

SULLIVAN: Not yet. But they haven't been very concerned by sanctions in the past. I don't see them starting now.

PFEIFFER: And of course, with all these people protesting, there's the concern about what might the Myanmar military do? Will anyone get hurt? How has the military responded so far?

SULLIVAN: With restraint at the beginning - and then in the middle, it sort of got a little worse. On Tuesday, after it issued its veiled warning to prevent acts that violate what it called state stability and the rule of law, things did turn ugly in several places with water cannon and rubber bullets used by police in several different cities. But things, though, have calmed down since, though there have been more arrests of political figures. Nighttime curfews are in place in some areas, but protesters are still coming out every day in big numbers. And I don't see that changing unless the military shuts it down forcibly, definitively. And that's the big fear - 'cause they've done it before.

PFEIFFER: Reporter Michael Sullivan. Thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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