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Will U.S. Sanctions Convince Myanmar’s Junta to Change Course?

Myanmar’s generals have proven they can survive sanctions. But sustained public pressure may be harder to endure.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
US President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Myanmar in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., February 10, 2021.
US President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Myanmar in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., February 10, 2021. Saul Loeb/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden announces sanctions on Myanmar’s military, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold their first phone call since Biden took office, and women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is released from prison in Saudi Arabia.

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Biden Announces Myanmar Sanctions

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced U.S. sanctions against Myanmar’s military junta, ten days after the military seized absolute power and arrested members of the country’s democratically-elected leadership.

Biden is to freeze $1 billion in Myanmar’s state assets held in U.S. banks, with further sanctions expected to follow against a “first round of targets” this week.

The presidential announcement comes as protesters in Myanmar launched the sixth consecutive day of demonstrations on Thursday.

Will it change anything? Don’t count on it, Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based advisor with the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “Sanctions are important symbolically,” Horsey said. “They may have some impact on the margins, but we shouldn’t pretend they are going to change the behavior of the military.”

Put simply, Myanmar’s generals have endured sanctions before—including recent ones over the ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya minority—and so whatever the international community can muster is unlikely to dislodge them. “What the generals are facing is a broad-based uprising from almost all sectors of society rejecting the coup,” Horsey said. “That is where the real pressure is.”

What can the protests achieve? Courtney T. Wittekind examines whether that protest movement can succeed in Foreign Policy. Wittekind finds Myanmar’s young organizers “troubled by the prospect of a return to the dark past,” but “confident that their movement will produce transformative results.”

What We’re Following Today

The Biden-Xi call. U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first phone call since the U.S. leader took office, the White House announced yesterday.

According to a White House readout of the call, Biden brought up human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as avenues of cooperation in common areas like climate change policy. According to Chinese state television, Xi called for reinstating various lines of communication in order to prevent confrontation, while describing events in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as internal matters.

The call came shortly after Biden tasked the Pentagon with conducting a review of U.S. strategy toward China. As FP’s James Palmer writes in the weekly China Brief, the assessment is timely, “but approaching it purely from a military perspective isn’t enough.”

Saudi activist released. Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison on Wednesday after serving 1,001 days in detention. Al-Hathloul had been convicted under vague anti-terror laws in 2018, along with several other women’s rights activists. Under the terms of her release, Al-Hathloul must comply with a 5-year travel ban as well as a suspended sentence lasting two years and eight months. “Loujain’s yearslong imprisonment has ended, but she is not free,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch.

EU vaccine rollout. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has accepted responsibility for the sluggishness of the European Union’s vaccine rollout compared to other world powers during a European Parliament debate on Wednesday.

“We are still not where we want to be. We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps we were too confident that, what we ordered, would actually be delivered on time,” von der Leyen said. The EU leader maintained that despite the bloc’s mistakes, 70 percent of citizens would receive a vaccine by the end of summer. The European Union passed 500,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, although the actual number is likely higher.

Keep an Eye On  

Iran’s nuclear moves. Iran has begun producing uranium metal, a further breach of the 2015 international nuclear agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Wednesday. The metal is used in the core of nuclear bombs although Iran maintains that its production is purely for research purposes. The move increases pressure on the United States and Iran to come to an agreement on the U.S. return to the deal, after leaders of both countries appeared at odds over whether U.S. sanctions on Iran would be lifted before or after negotiations.

Tokyo’s Olympic troubles. Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee is expected to resign from his role amid public outcry over sexist remarks, the Fuji News Network has reported. Mori was quoted as saying he would prefer to restrict the speaking time of women on the Olympic board of trustees because “they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.”

Koo d’etat. Indian lawmakers are threatening to abandon Twitter in favor of Indian lookalike app Koo amid a dispute with the Silicon Valley company. The Indian government has ordered the removal of hundreds of Twitter accounts and posts in recent days over claims that users are spreading misinformation about ongoing farmer protests. The Twitter account of the Caravan, a prominent magazine, was initially suspended before the company reversed the move.

On Wednesday, Twitter announced it would not comply with some takedown orders as it deemed them in contravention of Indian law. India’s IT ministry posted its displeasure with Twitter on rival app Koo, as a number of Indian leaders, including Trade Minister Piyush Goyal encouraged a Twitter exodus. The Koo app has seen a ten-fold increase in downloads as a result of the spat—a total of 3 million in the past two days. In the long term, the pressure for Twitter to comply with government demands may be too hard to resist as it hopes to expand its Indian user base of roughly 17 million.

Odds and Ends

A mysterious metal monolith that appeared in a field in southeastern Turkey has proven to be a hoax to promote Turkey’s new space program. The object appeared last week in a rural area near Sanliurfa, driving intense speculation, and was soon under armed guard.

The monolith’s inscription “Look at the sky, see the moon” gave the game away when it was used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his Wednesday speech announcing the space program, which includes plans for a moon mission. The stunt is not believed to be connected to the mysterious monoliths, first discovered in the Utah desert, that have been appearing around the world since last summer.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn