US calls detentions in Myanmar a coup, promises sanctions

The military detention of civilian leaders in Myanmar was a coup, State Department officials said Tuesday, setting the stage for sanctions and other measures targeting what they said was “the very small circle of military generals” responsible.

Biden administration officials previously had held off on classifying the military’s weekend roundup that way. State Department officials said Tuesday they were satisfied it met the legal definition of a coup.

Humanitarian assistance to Myanmar’s people would not be affected by whatever penalties the U.S. decides on, a State Department official said. The officials briefed reporters on condition they not be identified.

Myanmar’s generals detained the country’s civilian leader, Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and others. The generals cited claims of fraud in November elections, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party had won by a landslide.

Hundreds of Myanmar lawmakers under house arrest after coup

The roundups upended years of internationally backed efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar, which had been emerging from a half-century of harsh military rule and international isolation. After street protests against the military dictatorship, the generals allowed elections in 2015 that were won by Suu Kyi’s party.

The State Department official said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in Myanmar’s latest elections. The United States believed the military’s real impetus for grabbing back power was to prevent the elected parliament from meeting as scheduled on Monday, the official said.

The official rejected a suggestion that the takeover showed international democracy promotion in Myanmar had been a failure, saying the country and its civil society had opened up and progressed in other ways as well.

The White House has requested $109 million in aid for Myanmar for 2021.

The impact of any new U.S. penalties against the military is likely to be minor. The United States already has imposed sanctions upon or otherwise penalized many of the country’s military leaders and military overall. That was for vicious attacks that have sent hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority fleeing the country.

President Joe Biden on Monday called the latest military action an assault on democracy and the rule of law there. “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” Biden said.