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US tightens trade restrictions against Myanmar after bloody protest crackdown

·4-min read

The United States on Thursday unveiled new measures to punish Myanmar’s army for its Feb. 1 coup, blocking the ministries of defense and home affairs and top military conglomerates from certain types of trade.

Washington has also subjected Myanmar to “military end use” export control restrictions, requiring its U.S. suppliers to seek difficult-to-obtain U.S. licenses to ship it certain items.

The actions were taken in response to the Myanmar military’s intensified crackdown on peaceful protesters who oppose the takeover that overthrew elected officials including leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won a national election in November.

Police broke up demonstrations with tear gas and gunfire in several cities across the country. The United Nations said that at least 54 people have been killed since the coup. More than 1,700 people had been arrested, including 29 journalists.

The White House called the situation, including the arrest of an Associated Press journalist, “troubling” and of “great concern.” The State Department said it’s working with other countries to send a unified message to the military that its actions are unacceptable and will be met with consequences.

The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military leaders since the Feb. 1 coup, but stepped up pressure after Wednesday’s killing.The administration says it’s in close touch with partners and allies, as well as with countries like China, to try to convince Myanmar officials to ease their heavy-handed response to the protests.

“The detainment of journalists, the targeting of journalists and dissidents is certainly something that is of great concern to the president, to the secretary of state and to every member of our administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

At the State Department, spokesman Ned Price said the administration was “deeply saddened” by reports of deaths in the crackdown on protests. “This latest escalation in violence demonstrates the fact of the junta’s complete disregard for their own people, for the people of Burma,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”

“We are deeply concerned about the increasing attacks on and arrest of journalists,” he said. “We call on the military to immediately release these individuals and to cease their intimidation and harassment of the media and others who are unjustly detained for doing nothing more than their job, for doing nothing more than exercising their universal rights.”

>> On the Observers: In Myanmar, journalists covering anti-coup protests fear for their lives

Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw and several other members of the media were arrested last week while covering security forces charging at anti-coup protesters. They have been charged with violating a public order law that could see them imprisoned for up to three years. The AP and press freedom groups have called for Zaw’s immediate release, but there has been no response from the authorities.

Tougher sanctions still on the table

President Joe Biden last month rolled out sanctions on Myanmar, on those responsible for the ouster of the southeast Asian nation’s civilian-led government, including the defense minister and three companies in the jade and gems sector.

The United States will not allow Myanmar’s military to continue to benefit from access to many items, the Commerce Department said in a statement on Thursday.

“The U.S. government will continue to hold perpetrators of the coup responsible for their actions.”

The Commerce Department added that it was reviewing further potential action.

The two conglomerates identified – Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited – are among those used by the military to control vast swathes of Myanmar’s economy through the holding firms and their subsidiaries, with interests ranging from beer and cigarettes to telecom, tires, mining and real estate.

Advocacy group Justice for Myanmar said on Tuesday that the Ministry of Home Affairs, which commands the police, had purchased technology from American companies that was being used for surveillance of social media, among other uses.

Yadanar Maung, a spokeswoman for the group, hailed the measures but urged more, including similar action against the Transport and Communications Ministry, which she said was used “as window dressing for the military and security forces to acquire technology for surveillance and repression.”

“Comprehensive and targeted measures, including a global arms embargo, are essential to prevent the sale of arms and technology that will enable the military to sure up their brutal rule,” she said.

But the measures are expected to have limited impact as the United States ships little to Myanmar annually and the entities are not major importers.

“The volume of trade is small so the impact won’t be big,” said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official. “A bigger impact would be to go after the financial assets of the military leaders of the coup.”

Reinsch said the listing “will make it harder for those entities to get technology that would strengthen the military and other goods they might want.”

The U.S. government has yet to deploy its toughest sanctioning tool against the military conglomerates, one that would block all transactions with U.S. persons and essentially kicks the designated companies out of the U.S. banking system.