Signaling a tough U.S. response to last week’s military takeover in Myanmar, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday economic restrictions and imminent sanctions against the coup leaders as he pressed them to release country leader Aung San Suu Kyi and respect the results of the Nov. 8 elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the vote in a landslide victory deemed free and fair by the international community. But the military and its proxy party accused election officials of fraud, and soldiers staged a coup on Feb. 1 in response, arresting the 75-year-old leader and some 170 others, mostly politicians.
Biden said the U.S. was taking steps to prevent the generals from “improperly having access” to the U.S.$1 billion in Myanmar government funds in the United States, and that he was issuing an executive order to allow immediate sanctions on the coup leaders and close family members. He said targets of these sanctions would be announced this week.
The U.S. would also impose strong export controls and freeze U.S. assets that could benefit the military, while maintaining U.S. support for health care, civil society groups, and other assistance that directly benefits the people of Burma, Biden said, using the former name for the country.
“I again call on the Burmese military to immediately release the democratic political leaders and activists they are now detaining, including Aung San Suu Kyi and also Win Myint, the president,” Biden said.
“The military must also relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people in Burma as expressed in the Nov. 8 election,” he said.
“As protests grow, violence against those asserting their democratic rights is unacceptable and we’re going to keep calling it out. The people of Burma are making their voices heard, and the world is watching, and we’ll be ready to impose additional measures,” Biden said.
The U.S. previously levied broad sanctions against the former ruling junta in Myanmar but lifted those restrictions as the country transitioned to democracy beginning in 2011.
However, current army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a handful of other figures are already facing U.S. restrictions over the military’s brutal 2017 crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims that drove 740,000 of them into Bangladesh.
Symbol for the cause
Meanwhile, protesters in Myanmar continued their defiance of the military rule in major street rallies on Wednesday, the fifth consecutive day of mass demonstrations against the regime that have spread across the nation despite a ban on public assemblies in the two largest cities.
People in nearly all major cities and towns held anti-junta protests as more government employees from several ministries joined the civil disobedience campaign, though there were no reported incidents of violence.
Protesters have embraced a young woman who was shot in the head by security forces Tuesday during a nonviolent rally in Naypyidaw as a symbol for the cause. Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing remains in critical condition, through unlikely to survive. Protesters draped a huge banner with her image from an overpass today where demonstrators gather daily in Yangon.
The military has denied shooting real bullets at protesters during the Naypyidaw rally, but a doctor at the hospital where the young woman is being treated said that a CT scan indicated a metal bullet had pierced her motorbike helmet and skull.
On Monday, Myanmar’s junta banned gatherings of more than five people along with motorized processions in Yangon and Mandalay — he country’s two biggest cities.
People are also banned from leaving their homes between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., according to the orders issued after 10 p.m. on Monday night local time, which will remain effective until further notice.
The restrictive measures were ordered after police fired water cannons at hundreds of protesters in Naypyidaw, who were demanding the military hand power back to elected officials. It was then that police shot Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing.
“We were watching from a bus shelter when the police, along with fire trucks, moved forward and the protesters retreated,” her sister, Mya Thadoe Nwai, told RFA Wednesday.
Angry youths were throwing water bottles and rocks at the advancing police when shots rang out, though Mya Thadoe Nwai and others thought they were shooting into the air, she said. As they turned around to move to a safer place, she saw that her sister had fallen to the ground.
“We tried to take off her motorcycle helmet to help her breathe and saw her head covered in blood,” Mya Thadoe Nwai said. “Only then did I realize that she had been hit. I was in real shock and didn’t even know how we had gotten to the hospital.”
Her sister remains in critical condition and has only a five percent chance of survival, she said.
“I will go on fighting against the military dictatorship to make my sister’s death meaningful,” Mya Thadoe Nwai said.
The condition of So Wei, another critically injured protester who was shot in the chest on Tuesday, has improved, and he is said to be out of danger.
Ongoing civil disobedience
Amid the ongoing protests, at least 40 police officers joined the protests in Loikaw, capital of Kayah state, in the largest case so far of police switching sides.
About 80 protesters detained Tuesday in Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay were released on bail but are forbidden to participate in future demonstrations.
As thousands of civilians protest against military government nationwide, small groups of pro-military supporters held counter-protests in Pathein, Ayeyarwady region.
Volunteer medics providing medical treatment to injured protesters in Naypyidaw said armed soldiers on Tuesday night positioned themselves nearby a religious gathering hall they are using as a makeshift medical center to try to get them to leave.
The medical team, comprising nearly 200 doctors and nurses from various hospitals in the capital as well as local residents, protesters, and voluntary ambulance personnel, said they treated about 15 protesters who were wounded after Tuesday’s shooting and sent critically injured Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing and So Wei to a 1,000-bed hospital.
“These people got injured in a violent crackdown, and the presence of armed policemen and soldiers will make them more frightened,” said a doctor who declined to be identified for safety reasons. He told RFA that the medical professionals are relocating the temporary treatment center.
About 500 government employees from five government ministries in the capital joined protesters Wednesday at the Myoma Market. Protesters said many senior officials were there, including directors and deputy directors.
“We think the military takeover was illegal, and so instead of going to work, we are here to stop the government administrative machinery,” said a government employee.
Another government worker said, “It is important that we all do not go to work and instead reinforce the civil disobedience campaign.”
About 1,000 youths participated in a street protest at the Thabyegon roundabout where police shot at protesters the previous day. No further incidents were reported.
The junta’s military information committee issued a statement denying the allegations that police fired live ammunition at the protesters and accused the demonstrators of staging the violence.
The doctor who treated wounded Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, however, told RFA Tuesday that “we believe it was a real bullet.”
“Rubber bullets cannot inflict this kind of injury. The head CT scan also indicated that the bullet lodged in the brain was metal and not rubber,” he said, declining to be identified for security reasons.
UN rapporteur ‘alarmed’
On Wednesday, Thomas Andrews, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar expressed alarm at reports of the use of lethal force by security forces against protesters, saying all members of the security forces had an obligation under international law not to use excessive force, and that they risked being prosecuted if they did so.
“I am alarmed at the increasing levels of force against peaceful protesters,” he said in a statement. “People are frightened but also determined. It is imperative that security forces stand down before there are more casualties of protesters who are exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association.”
“Myanmar military personnel and police need to know that ‘following orders’ is no defense for committing atrocities and any such defense will fail, regardless of their place in the chain of command. International crimes are manifestly unlawful,” Andrews said.
During the first week of the coup, authorities made hundreds of arbitrary detentions, including Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, top government officials, NLD members, lawmakers, civil society members, and protesters.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin and Mat Pennington.