US President Joe Biden has approved an executive order for new sanctions on those responsible for the military coup in Myanmar, as the army detained another key aide to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Further protests were expected on Thursday following days of demonstrations in major cities and towns inside Myanmar calling for the military to cede power following its 1 February coup.
Biden said the order enabled his administration “to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.”
Washington would identify the first round of targets this week and was taking steps to prevent the generals having access to $1bn in Myanmar government funds held in the United States.
“We’re also going to impose strong exports controls. We’re freezing US assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly,” Biden said at the White House.
“We’ll be ready to impose additional measures, and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”
Overnight, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest aides, Kyaw Tint Swe, was detained in a new wave of arrests, an official of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party said in a post on Facebook. Kyi Toe, an information committee member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), said Kyaw Tint Swe and four other people linked to the previous government had been taken from their homes overnight.
He said officials of the electoral commission had also been arrested overnight, including some down to township level, but he did not immediately have an exact number of those arrested.
The military launched the coup after what it said was widespread fraud in November elections, won by the NLD in a landslide. The electoral commission had rejected those claims.
Kyaw Tint Swe had served as minister for the office of the State Counsellor under Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup.
Myanmar authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Scores of officials have been detained since the coup.
The coup and detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi presents Biden with his first major international crisis, and a test of his dual pledges to re-centre human rights in foreign policy and work more closely with allies.
“I again call on the Burmese military to immediately release the democratic political leaders and activists,” he said. “The military must relinquish power it’s seized.”
US state department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington was rolling out collective actions with partners on Myanmar.
“We can impose substantial costs ourselves. We can impose costs that are even steeper … by working with our like-minded partners and allies,” he told a briefing.
Western countries have condemned the coup, but analysts believed Myanmar’s new junta would not be as isolated as previous iterations, with China, India, south-east Asian neighbours and Japan unlikely to cut ties given the country’s strategic importance.
Derek Mitchell, a former US ambassador to Myanmar, said it was vital to get nations such as Japan, India and Singapore involved in a strong response.
“The key will not be just what America does,” he said. “It’s going to be how we get others along with us, allies who may have more skin in the game, more leverage, or at least better relationships with the key players.”
The United Nations’ top human rights body is to consider a resolution on Friday drafted by Britain and the European Union condemning the coup and demanding urgent access for monitors.
However, diplomats said China and Russia – which both have ties to Myanmar’s armed forces – are expected to raise objections or try to weaken the text. The UN security council released a statement last week calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release but stopping short of condemning the coup.
The protests against the coup have been the largest in Myanmar in more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated with bloody army crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.