JAKARTA – The United States is at a turning point in deciding how to handle the crisis in military-ruled Myanmar, weighing further political and economic steps to pressure the government to change its behavior, a senior U.S. official said Thursday.
“The situation is getting worse inside Burma, both from a humanitarian point of view, from a security point of view, in terms of the economy and the lack of progress on the politics,” U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told The Associated Press in an interview.
The U.S. has been one of the most vocal opponents of the military takeover that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February. Suu Kyi was arrested and detained with top members of her National League for Democracy party, including President Win Myint.
A detailed accounting by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners blames security forces for the killings of almost 1,200 civilians and arresting over 9,043 others since Feb. 1. The government now faces a growing insurgency in many parts of the country.
Chollet, who serves as an adviser to the secretary of state, gave an online interview while the U.S. delegation was in Indonesia after visiting Thailand and Singapore ahead of an annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei, where the situation in Myanmar is likely to dominate.
“We think that we have tools that can help stem the worst from happening in the near term. But as I said, I think we are at an inflection point in the process," Chollet said. There are political and economic levers that can be pulled by the U.S. and other governments to “pressure the regime to try to give them the kinds of incentives to change their behavior.”
“Part of what we are trying to do as the United States is to come in and not dictate the terms, but to offer our best perspectives and also hear from different partners here in the region,” he said. In talks with the three key ASEAN members, the U.S. delegation was able to to get "a sense of their ideas of the best way forward.”
The U.S., along with the United Kingdom and the European Union, has already placed sanctions on high-ranking Myanmar military members and state-owned enterprises — including those dealing in lucrative timber and gems — that are considered revenue streams for the military.
But activists have been quick to point out that the sanctions have not included American and French oil and gas companies working in Myanmar, allowing the military to maintain its single-largest source of foreign currency revenue. It allows them to make purchases such as refined petroleum, weapons, packaged medicines and other imported goods.
“Not having sanctions is allowing these massive multination companies that have huge stakeholder investment to be potentially complicit in ongoing atrocities and crimes in Myanmar,” said Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. “These business relationships are basically going directly to criminal junta. The failure to take reasonable steps ... is really quite reckless and allowing businesses to be complicit.”
Chollet admitted there is “no question” that sanctioning of the oil business is a tool available to the U.S. But he also cautioned that Washington would need to “keep in mind the interests” of allies and partners in the region.
“That’s why we’re here is to think through what’s the way forward, what could actually work to try to change the outlook of the junta,” he said. “But then also how can we do so in a way that doesn’t make our problems worse.” He said the Biden administration has not made a final decision.
On Friday, ASEAN announced that it would not invite Myanmar’s military leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to the summit, a major repudiation for the country after it refused to allow an ASEAN envoy meet with Suu Kyi. The envoy, a Brunei diplomat, subsequently canceled his trip to Myanmar.
The decision was applauded by the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews. He said the military government was seeking money, weapons and legitimacy from the international community.
“ASEAN’s announcement that the junta will not be welcome at its upcoming summit denies the junta the ... legitimacy,” he said Monday. “Sustained pressure on all three fronts ... is the best way the international community can support the people of Myanmar to protect their human rights and save their country.”