By Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on Myanmar's acting president and several other military officers and warned the generals there could be more economic punishment as Washington responds to the military coup.
The U.S. Treasury Department said it targeted eight people, including the defence minister, three companies in the jade and gems sector, and updated sanctions on the top two military officials, accusing them of playing a leading role in overthrowing Myanmar's democratically-elected government.
But Washington stopped short of including the entire Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), the military's conglomerates that are prevalent throughout Myanmar's economy.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday approved an executive order for new sanctions on those responsible for the coup in Myanmar, also known as Burma, that ousted the civilian-led government and detained elected leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The February 1 coup was a direct assault on Burma's transition to democracy and the rule of law," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.
"We are also prepared to take additional action should Burma's military not change course. If there is more violence against peaceful protesters, the Burmese military will find that today's sanctions are just the first," Yellen added.
Thursday's action designated Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military Min Aung Hlaing and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win under Biden's executive order. Both were previously hit with sanctions in 2019 over allegations of abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.
Others listed were six members of the National Defense and Security Council and four military officials announced as members of the State Administration Council, including Defense Minister Mya Tun Oo.
The three companies named by Washington - Myanmar Ruby Enterprise, Myanmar Imperial Jade Co, LTD, and Cancri (Gems and Jewellery) Co, LTD - were identified by a U.N. mission on Myanmar in 2019 as part of the MEHL conglomerate.
The White House said the sanctions do not need to be permanent, urging Myanmar's military to "immediately restore power to the democratically elected government, end the state of emergency, release all those unjustly detained, and ensure peaceful protesters are not met with violence."
The Biden administration has been working to form an international response to the crisis.
John Lichtefeld, vice president at Washington-based strategic consultancy The Asia Group, said Thursday's announcements were an "opening salvo putting the military on notice," adding that sanctions against the MEHL and MEC conglomerates may still occur.
"I think this is a signal to the military that the United States is serious and has a very wide range of tools at its disposal. The range of actors potentially implicated by this order is exceptionally broad, even though the order itself does not directly sanction any individual or entities," he said.
Suu Kyi's party won a 2015 election but the transition to democracy was brought to a halt by the coup that ousted her government as it was preparing to begin its second term after her National League for Democracy (NLD) swept a Nov. 8 election.
The military cited election fraud as justification for its takeover. The electoral commission dismissed accusations of fraud.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said it was immediately redirecting $42.2 million of assistance away from work that would have benefited Myanmar's government.
The aid agency said it would continue to support the people of Myanmar with approximately $69 million in bilateral programs.
Protesters have taken to the streets in cities and towns in the largest demonstrations in Myanmar for more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated with bloody crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mary Milliken, Grant McCool and Rosalba O'Brien)