On February 1, 2021, the military in BurmaFootnote 1 overthrew the democratically elected government, declared a one-year state of emergency, and installed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the head of government. Since the coup, the military has cracked down on protestors, killing over 800 people and detaining many more. Numerous countries and international organizations, including the United States and the United Nations, have condemned the coup and ensuing violence and called for the restoration of a democratic government. The United States and other countries have also imposed rigorous sanctions on the Burmese military, its officials and affiliated corporations, and social media companies have imposed content restrictions to prevent the spread of pro-military propaganda.
This is not the first military coup in Burma. The Burmese military seized power in 1962 and maintained control over the country for forty-nine years.Footnote 2 After elections in 2010, Burma began a peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to a quasi-civilian government,Footnote 3 and in 2015, the military accepted election results that brought the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to power.Footnote 4 Even after this transition, however, the military retained significant control over key cabinet positions and national corporations.Footnote 5 Burma and its military in particular have drawn international condemnation since the 2017 launch of a violent campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, that forced over 750,000 refugees to flee the country.Footnote 6 Even in the face of allegations that the campaign was genocidal, Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government defended the military's actions.Footnote 7
Despite this delicate alliance between the civilian government and the military, concerns about a military coup began to surface in October 2020.Footnote 8 The NLD decisively won the November 2020 election, securing 396 out of 479 Parliamentary seats; in contrast, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, won only thirty-three seats.Footnote 9 The USDP refused to recognize the election results and claimed that early voting showed evidence of “widespread violation of laws and procedures.”Footnote 10 Subsequent talks between the military and civilian leaders failed,Footnote 11 and during the last week of January, military vehicles began appearing in at least two cities.Footnote 12 On January 28, 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned against any military provocations in Burma.Footnote 13 The next day, seventeen diplomatic missions in Burma, including the U.S. embassy, released a joint statement opposing “any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar's democratic transition.”Footnote 14
On February 1, the newly elected Parliament was supposed to be sworn in,Footnote 15 but instead, the military declared a one-year state of emergency and seized control.Footnote 16 By the evening of February 1, the military had formed a new cabinet, in which every minister was a former or current military general.Footnote 17 After detaining civilian leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, cabinet ministers, and opposition politicians, the Burmese military announced that ultimate authority had been transferred to the army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.Footnote 18 The military justified its actions on the grounds of voter fraud in the November 2020 electionsFootnote 19 and announced that it would administer new elections at the end of the one-year state of emergency.Footnote 20 Aung San Suu Kyi and deposed president U Win Myint were charged with obscure criminal violations that could result prison sentences.Footnote 21
The military quickly seized control of telecommunications on February 1, suspending telephone and internet access in major cities; cancelling flights; and shutting down the stock market and banks.Footnote 22 The following week, the military junta circulated a draft cybersecurity law to telecommunications and internet companies, purporting to allow the military to block websites and cut off access to “troublesome” users and to allow the government to access users’ data.Footnote 23 On March 8, state television announced that the military had revoked the licenses of five independent media organizations.Footnote 24
Protests began immediately following the coup and grew in size as the military escalated its response against protestors.Footnote 25 The number of protesters dramatically increased on February 22, when millions of workers joined a mass Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM); the movement has adversely affected many sectors of the country's economy, including causing up to ninety percent of national government activity to cease.Footnote 26 Some protestors began calling on foreign countries to invade Burma, with the hashtag #R2P (short for “responsibility to protect”) trending on Twitter in Burma.Footnote 27 In mid-February, the military began using lethal force against protestors, and it has continued to escalate its use of force in subsequent months.Footnote 28 As of late June, the military had killed more than 800 and detained more than 5,000 people according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.Footnote 29 At least forty of the dead are children.Footnote 30 According to the UN high commissioner for human rights, hundreds of detainees have disappeared, at least five have died while in custody, and at least two have been tortured.Footnote 31
The United States, its allies, and the United Nations have sought to provide a coordinated response to the coup. On February 1, President Biden released a statement declaring the coup a “direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law.”Footnote 32 Biden called on the international community to work together to pressure the Burmese military to change course, stating:
The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians. The United States is taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour. We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma's democratic transition.Footnote 33
On February 4, the UN Security Council released a statement sounding similar notes, calling for the immediate release of detained officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and emphasizing its support for continued democratic transition.Footnote 34
On February 14, the Burmese military intensified its crackdown on protestors by moving military units into cities, trying to disperse crowds with force, surrounding houses of protesting government employees, and threatening to shoot protestors.Footnote 35 In response to this crackdown, a group of fifteen ambassadors to Burma, including the U.S. ambassador, released a statement stating:
We call on security forces to refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians, who are protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government.
We unequivocally condemn the detention and ongoing arrests of political leaders, civil society activists, and civil servants, as well as the harassment of journalists.
We also denounce the military's interruption of communications, as well as the restriction of the Myanmar people's fundamental rights and basic legal protections.
We support the people of Myanmar in their quest for democracy, freedom, peace, and prosperity. The world is watching.Footnote 36
On February 23, the G7 foreign ministers also released a statement warning, among other things, that “[u]se of live ammunition against unarmed people is unacceptable” and that “[a]nyone responding to peaceful protests with violence must be held to account.”Footnote 37
The Biden administration's primary response to the coup has been the imposition of a series of sanctions, sometimes in conjunction with European allies, against Burmese military officials and companies they control. On February 10, President Biden announced that he would impose sanctions to prevent access to one billion dollars in Burmese government funds kept in the United States.Footnote 38 The next day, the administration announced a series of actions by multiple agencies to pressure the Burmese military.Footnote 39 President Biden issued an executive order that declared a national emergency to address the threat posed by the coup in Burma.Footnote 40 Citing the Constitution, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the National Emergencies Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act, the order authorizes sanctions to block the property and prevent entry into the United States of military leaders and anyone involved in the coup, violence against protestors, or suppression of free speech.Footnote 41 The order also permits sanctions against the spouses and adult children of such persons.Footnote 42 Pursuant to the order, the U.S. Treasury Department designated ten individuals who played a leading role in the coup and three entities affiliated with the military.Footnote 43 In addition, the Commerce Department restricted exports of sensitive items to Burma's military and security services.Footnote 44 The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also redirected $42.4 million away from projects benefiting the Burmese government, while maintaining $69 million in funding for programs with direct benefits to the Burmese population.Footnote 45 On March 4, the Commerce Department implemented new export controls against Burma and added four entities associated with the coup to the Entity List, arguing that “[w]e will not allow the Burmese military to continue to benefit from access to items subject to the [Export Administration Regulations].”Footnote 46
On March 8, the Burmese military further solidified its control by taking over hospitals, universities, and Buddhist complexes and escalated its use of force against protestors, fatally shooting protestors and trapping hundreds in a security force cordon.Footnote 47 In response to the violence, the UN Security Council president issued a statement that “strongly condemn[ed] the violence against peaceful protestors, including against women, youth and children,” and expressed support for efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to engage with the relevant parties in Burma.Footnote 48 The United States also responded with sanctions against two adult children of Min Aung Hlaing and six entities owned or controlled by these individuals pursuant to Executive Order 14,014.Footnote 49 In announcing Treasury's designations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the designations are intended “to respond to the violence enabled by Burma's military leaders, to promote accountability for those responsible for the coup, and to target those who benefit financially from their connections to the military regime.”Footnote 50 He added, “The leaders of the coup, and their adult family members, should not be able to continue to derive benefits from the regime as it resorts to violence and tightens its stranglehold on democracy.”Footnote 51 Additional sanctions have followed, including in coordination with the European Union,Footnote 52 and the United States has taken steps to limit travel to Burma and provide Temporary Protected Status for Burmese refugees for eighteen months.Footnote 53
As the casualties have risen in Burma, Congress has pushed for stronger responses. On March 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the Biden administration to provide a report to Congress on the coup and the administration's responses to it.Footnote 54 On March 19, the House passed a resolution condemning the coup and calling on the Biden administration to take additional actions, including imposing multilateral sanctions on military-owned businesses, ensuring that U.S.-based social media companies prevent Burmese military-sponsored disinformation campaigns, and restricting relations with Burma until the restoration of a civilian government.Footnote 55
On March 23, military forces fatally shot a seven-year-old girl as they fired randomly into homes.Footnote 56 On March 25, the State Department condemned the Burmese military's continued use of lethal force against civilians, particularly against children.Footnote 57 The statement said, in part:
These abhorrent and brutal acts against children, one as young as seven years old who was shot and killed in her home while sitting on her father's lap, further demonstrate the horrific nature of the Burmese military regime's assault on its own people and its complete disregard for the lives of the people of Burma.”Footnote 58
That same day, the United States and United Kingdom sanctioned Burmese corporations controlled by the military.Footnote 59
Following the March 25 U.S. and UK actions, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia Subcommittee, Senator Ed Markey, expressed support for the sanctions but called for further action “to deny the army its economic lifeline and to deny it the weapons of war,” arguing that “[t]he United States should play a leading role in urging our partners and allies, including members of ASEAN, to take steps to cut off funding for the military.”Footnote 60 Human Rights Watch also called the March 25 sanctions “a very important step” but tempered its praise by noting “it is not the biggest economic sanction that could be implemented.”Footnote 61 Internationally, UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener warned the UN Security Council on March 31 that it should consider further action if it wanted to avoid an “imminent bloodbath” and “multi-dimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia.”Footnote 62
The United States has continued to ratchet up its response to violence by the Burmese military. March 27 saw the most violence against protestors since the coup began, with over one hundred people estimated dead, including children.Footnote 63 In response, the Biden administration announced on March 29 that it would suspend all diplomatic trade engagement under the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Burma “until the return of a democratically elected government.”Footnote 64 On April 21, the United States announced sanctions on two new military-controlled companies—two days after the European Union announced its own sanctions against ten military leaders and other military-controlled companies.Footnote 65
The United States has joined other G7 members in endorsing efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to address the coup following an ASEAN leaders’ summit at the end of April that Senior General Min Aung Hlain attended on behalf of Burma.Footnote 66 In a May 7 communiqué, the G7 foreign and development ministers “call[ed] on the military to restore Myanmar to the path to democracy,” “committed to constructively supporting ASEAN's efforts,” and pledged additional actions, including continued bans on the sale or trade of military equipment, “if the military does not reverse its course.”Footnote 67 Acting with the United Kingdom and Canada, the United States subsequently imposed additional sanctions on the military regime, officials, and officials’ adult children,Footnote 68 while also announcing $155 million in new funding to assist Rohingya refugees in Burma and Bangladesh.Footnote 69 The State Department noted that “the coup leaders are many of the same individuals responsible for previous human rights abuses, including atrocities against Rohingya.”Footnote 70
Some Burmese officials around the world have criticized the coup. On February 26, Burma's UN envoy, U Kyaw Moe Tun, denounced the coup as illegitimate in a speech to the UN General Assembly,Footnote 71 prompting the Burmese military to fire him and accuse him of high treason.Footnote 72 However, he refused to step down, and the UN refused to recognize his dismissal.Footnote 73 Burma's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was recalled from his post and locked out of Burma's embassy in London after issuing a statement calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.Footnote 74 Furthermore, on April 16, former members of Burma's parliament, leaders of anti-coup protests, and leaders of ethnic minorities coalesced to form the National Unity Government, claiming they “are the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar.”Footnote 75
A number of countries, however, have failed to expressly condemn the coup or even expressed support for the Burmese military. On March 27, Russia's deputy defense minister, Alexander Fomin, attended the Burmese Armed Forces Day ceremony, where he received a medal and a ceremonial sword.Footnote 76 A Chinese representative also attended the ceremony, and China has yet to take any definitive action against the coup, which Chinese state news agency Xinhua referred to as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”Footnote 77 While China has historically been supportive of the Burmese military, President Xi Jinping had also fostered a close political relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi's government, including through purchasing $90 million in oil and gas per month, signing agreements for railroad and port projects in Burma, and encouraging Huawei's plan to establish a 5 G cellphone network in Burma.Footnote 78 China's ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, stated in May that “China supports all political parties and factions of Myanmar in seeking a political solution to their differences through dialogue within the constitutional and legal framework and continuing to advance democratic transition,” and warned that “[o]ne-sided pressuring and pushing for sanctions and other coercive measures will only aggravate tensions and confrontation.”Footnote 79 Some observers, including former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, believe that the Chinese government sees the coup as “a moment of opportunity” to counter U.S. influence in the region.Footnote 80
In addition to the governmental and intergovernmental responses to the coup, social media companies have taken measures to block the Burmese military from their platforms. The Burmese military has historically been prolific on Facebook, planting anti-democracy conspiracy theories in groups visited by soldiers and using the platform to incite citizens against the Rohingya minority.Footnote 81 One of the first statements following the coup by General Min Aung Hlaing was posted on the Burmese military's official Facebook page.Footnote 82 On February 24, Facebook announced it had blocked Burma's military from using and banned military-owned businesses from advertising on Facebook.Footnote 83 Facebook justified its decision by stating, “[e]vents since the Feb. 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban” and cited the Burmese military's history of human rights abuses and social media manipulation.Footnote 84 The ban does not, however, affect personal accounts of military officers or private groups for soldiers.Footnote 85 After Facebook's ban, TikTok saw a rise in the number of Burmese soldiers and police posting threatening or pro-military videos.Footnote 86 In response, TikTok released a statement that said, “[a]s it relates to Myanmar, we have been and continue to promptly remove all content that incites violence or spreads misinformation, and are aggressively monitoring to remove any such content that violates our guidelines.”Footnote 87 On March 5, YouTube announced it had removed five channels run by the Burmese military and their affiliated videos.Footnote 88
Despite increasing pressure from much of the international community, including the overwhelming passage of a UN General Assembly Resolution condemning the coup, Burma's military appears unwilling to reverse course.Footnote 89