An aerial view of Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by: Waldemar Merger / CC BY

Officials from the U.S. Department of State told reporters Tuesday that the military takeover in Myanmar constitutes a coup d’etat, a designation that carries restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance to the country.

The U.S. government is now assessing its foreign aid funding to ensure humanitarian and other assistance that benefits people in need can continue, while any funding that goes directly to the government is suspended.

“This assessment triggers certain restrictions on foreign assistance to the government of Burma [the former name of Myanmar], as it should, and in addition we will undertake a broader review of our assistance programs to ensure they align with recent events,” a State Department official said.

“At the same time, we will continue programs that benefit the people of Burma directly, including humanitarian assistance and democracy support programs that benefit civil society,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Myanmar's coup brings new scrutiny to development engagement

The military coup in Myanmar raises urgent questions about humanitarian access, refugee resettlement, and international engagement with a country backsliding from democracy.

The U.S. government rolled out a development partnership with Myanmar after the military junta ceded some control in 2011 and allowed for a power-sharing agreement with an elected, civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The government’s persecution of ethnic minorities placed severe strain on that plan. Now, Suu Kyi and other civilian political leaders are under house arrest, and the democratic transition that former President Barack Obama’s administration envisioned appears further out of reach.

When the U.S. government determines that a coup has taken place, it triggers a legal provision — Section 7008 of the foreign assistance appropriations bill — that prohibits U.S. aid to the government following the takeover.

Assistance can resume when the secretary of state determines a democratically elected government has taken office.

The restrictions only apply to funding that goes directly to the government, and the State Department official said that “very little” U.S. aid to Myanmar does so. The “vast majority” of U.S. assistance goes to humanitarian operations or is delivered through nongovernmental organizations.

Devex could not confirm the parameters of the review U.S. officials will undertake, but the official seemed to suggest it would transcend simply identifying funding that goes directly to the government. The official did not give a specific timeline for the review but said it would begin “immediately.”

Some experts told Devex that development investments in regions of the country where ethnic minorities have been persecuted could also be seen as tacit support for the military’s rule and might therefore face greater scrutiny.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.