President Biden is in a difficult position as his team develops options to respond to the military coup in Myanmar. Strong condemnations of the coup have been timely and a solid first step. But the options to impose punishing sanctions are limited. The United States already has targeted financial and travel sanctions on the generals who led the coup because of their atrocities against the Rohingya people. The painful bite of more sanctions has been rendered toothless as American security assistance and efforts with the Burmese military has slowed to a trickle.
The administration to its credit has taken the current crisis to the United Nations, but China and Russia are unlikely to support action against the generals. China described the coup as an internal matter and a “cabinet reshuffle.” Russia, with its own dissent crisis, would not back action with democratic rights in Burma. With sanctions options limited and Security Council action a nonstarter, the administration will need to be creative in applying a range of economic and diplomatic tools, including action on behalf of Burmese civil society so the junta will yield power.
The United States should continue to work with critical democratic allies in Europe, Australia, and beyond to apply the economic and diplomatic pressures on Burmese military leaders, as the greater the international collaboration, the stronger the potential impact. The United States can lead with action that escalates the costs to the coup leaders.
The administration must bolster and coordinate the current sanctions in place and close off any remaining loopholes that allow assistance for the Burmese military. It needs to extend new financial and travel sanctions on other military leaders and domestic police who supported the coup. Shut down all loans and investments that might benefit the junta.
The United States could threaten the closure of the American embassy in Myanmar. It should reach out to its democratic allies and trading partners, such as India, Japan, and South Korea, to suspend financial and economic interactions with the junta other than humanitarian aid for 90 days. They should join the arms embargo and impose financial and travel sanctions on the Burmese military. The administration can use diplomacy to apply pressures and offer incentives to countries that are soft on the coup, like Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, to join the efforts.
The administration should increase pressures within the United Nations agencies and several international institutions to double down with drug interdiction and prosecutions of those Burmese military officers who are associated with the atrocities against minorities in Myanmar, their use of child soldiers, and their engagement with human trafficking.
The United States should impose economic sanctions on the business entities and companies owned by the Burmese military that provide an important source of revenue to the generals. Moreover, there are lists of items and brands associated with these companies, and there can be an international boycott. Coordinated global action against the companies can provide the energy needed for civil society mobilization.
The United States and its democratic allies could provide significant new support for civil society action in Myanmar. Burmese democracy networks and human rights defenders have been protesting and using social media to voice their opposition. The United States can support the campaign for an external civil resistance as a form of atrocity prevention and a strategy to defend democracy. Public education, capacity assistance, and support for those who face oppression are moves that external actors could make to help all those who are struggling for their rights in Myanmar.
There are no easy options as the administration confronts this significant foreign policy challenge. But with leveraging economic sanctions, taking firm action with democratic allies, and supporting civil society, the United States can lead and build international opposition to the coup.
George Lopez is professor emeritus of peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and David Cortright is the director of the Global Policy Initiative and special adviser with the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.