Mitch McConnell Hopes U.S. Imposes 'Significant Costs' on Military in Myanmar Coup

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that additional sanctions are warranted following the military takeover in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

"The world is watching. I hope and expect the United States will quickly make the obvious legal determination that this is a military coup and impose significant costs on the military for its attack on democracy," the Kentucky Republican said in remarks on the Senate floor.

He added, "We already have sanctions in place against key military officials. And Congress has already given the executive branch the authorities it needs to swiftly apply even more sanctions to the military and its infiltration into Burma's economy."

Troops launched raids early Monday morning against top leaders of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The coup came as lawmakers gathered in the nation's capital for the opening of a new parliamentary session.

Tensions had been growing between the army and the civilian government since the nation's elections in November. Military leaders, who hold 25 percent of the country's parliamentary seats, have claimed the NLD used electoral fraud in its landslide victory. The country's election commission said there was no evidence to support the allegations.

President Joe Biden, facing his first major international crisis, threatened sanctions against the nation in a statement on Monday. The United States had gradually rolled back sanctions under President Barack Obama after Myanmar generals initiated democratic reforms.

"The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack," Biden said.

McConnell said he spoke to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the situation on Monday. The administration "deserves credit for approaching this situation in a way that's bipartisan and coordinated with Congress," he added.

Mitch McConnell remarks on Myanmar coup
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves his office and walks to the Senate floor on February 2. He said he hopes and expects the U.S. will impose "significant costs" on the military following the Myanmar coup. Drew Angerer/Getty

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the reports of the Myanmar coup "deeply disturbing" on Monday.

"Congress stands ready to work collaboratively with the new administration to resolve the situation," the New York Democrat said. "I know this is a region of long-standing concern and interest to the Republican leader, so I hope that we can productively work together in a bipartisan fashion to determine the best course of action for America's interests and for the people of Myanmar."

The Biden administration officially declared Tuesday that the Myanmar military's overthrow of the country's democratically elected leadership met the legal definition of a coup. The formal determination will trigger a review of the United States' foreign assistance to the Southeast Asian country.

"The Department of State assesses that the Burmese military's actions on February 1 constituted a military coup d'etat," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. "This assessment triggers a statutory restriction on U.S. foreign assistance for the Government of Burma. As the United States has done for decades, we will continue to support the people of Burma in their pursuit of democracy, peace, and prosperity. We will continue programs that benefit the people of Burma directly, including humanitarian assistance and democracy support programs."

The spokesperson said the government of Burma, including its military, "is already subject to a number of foreign assistance restrictions due to its human rights record" and that the United States "does not have foreign assistance programs that directly benefit the Burmese military as an institution."

"As part of our review, we will also look at non-assistance engagements with the military or individual low level officers not covered by Sec. 7008," the spokesperson added. "In addition, as President Biden has said, the United States will take action against those responsible, including potentially through a careful review of our current sanctions posture."

While the U.S. and the United Nations swiftly condemned the coup, not every foreign power had the same reaction. China, which shares a 1,300-mile border with Myanmar and is one of the nation's largest investors, said Monday it had "noted" the takeover but didn't refer to it as a coup.

"China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar's. We hope that all sides in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework and maintain political and social stability," foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily press briefing in Beijing.

McConnell slammed China's response in his remarks on Tuesday, saying its characterization of the coup as a "major cabinet reshuffle" was a "joke."

"There are two paths before Burma. It can continue to grow into a modern, democratic country, connected to the global economy, or remain a corrupt, impoverished authoritarian backwater in the shadow of the People's Republic of China," the senator said. "The people of Burma have said which they prefer. They've spoken at the ballot box. The threat of force must not be allowed to silence their choice."

Update (2/3/2021, 11:30 a.m): This story has been updated to include comment from a State Department spokesperson.