NEW YORK -- The U.S. has taken new steps to prevent the generals behind the coup in Myanmar from accessing government funds held in America and impose other sanctions on military leaders, President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
"Today, I again call on the Burmese military to immediately release democratic political leaders and activists," Biden said, referring to Myanmar's former name, Burma. "The military must relinquish power seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma, as expressed in their Nov. 8 election."
Biden's announcement marks the strongest actions taken by his administration against Myanmar's military since it seized control of the country on Feb. 1, detaining de facto leader State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other politicians after alleging election fraud.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has taken over leadership, although Biden did not mention him by name. "We will identify the first round of targets this week," Biden said.
The president says his administration "is taking steps to prevent the generals from improperly having access to $1 billion of Burmese government funds held in the United States."
Biden signed an executive order that would allow immediately sanctions on military leaders who directed the coup, including their business interests and family members.
Washington will put "strong" export controls in place and freeze assets that benefit the government of Myanmar, now under military control, "while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly," he added.
Washington has been in close contact with partners and allies particularly in the Indo-Pacific in an effort of "vigorous diplomatic outreach to help coordinate an international response to what happened" on Feb. 1, Biden said.
"We'll be ready to impose additional measures, and we'll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts," he added.
The latest the diplomatic outreach included a call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who spoke for roughly 40 minutes, according to a Japanese side readout on Wednesday. Japan has long had close ties with Myanmar as a big foreign aid donor as well as source of business investment.
Biden, who ran on a promise to bring America back to multilateralism and restore its leadership in international organizations, touted Washington's effort to help bring together the U.N. Security Council last week to issue a strong statement against the coup.
He said this week the U.S. will use its "renewed engagement" on the U.N. Human Rights Council to "strengthen the world's commitment to human rights" in Myanmar.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. sanctions announced Wednesday were as expected. Though Biden has said the U.S. is prepared to impose additional sanctions, these are likely to be laser-focused on the military.
"It's very unlikely that there will be the return to the type of broad-based sanctions you saw on Myanmar in the 2000s and 2010s," Kurlantzick said.
A possible follow-on measure could be a move against Myanmar military companies or expanding the list of individuals sanctioned, he added.
Biden was vice president when former President Barack Obama led a diplomatic effort to bring Myanmar out of isolation after decades spent cut off from much of the world. The Obama administration embraced Myanmar's transition to democracy by easing sanctions and engaging with the junta at the time.
Last week, the Biden administration officially designated the military takeover in Myanmar as a coup, automatically triggering restrictions on the Southeast Asian country's government to receive American aid.
Only a very small amount of U.S. aid would have gone directly to the government even without those restrictions, partially due to the sanctions already in place in response to the Rohingya crisis.
Washington has also reiterated that U.S. actions in response to Myanmar's political situation will not affect humanitarian aid to the Burmese people.