U.S. blocks Myanmar ministries, military businesses from certain trade

Protest in Myaynigone on March 2, 2021. (photo by Nway Oo)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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.

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 spokesman for the group, hailed the measures but urged more, including similar action against the Transport and Communications Ministry, which he 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,” he 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.

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