The US on Monday announced the suspension of all diplomatic and trade engagements with Myanmar after the military stepped up the level of violence against pro-democracy protesters and ethnic groups in the Southeast Asian hydrocarbons producer.

The 1 February military coup has led to significant bloodshed and rocked investor confidence in the country's mature oil and gas sector, which includes players such as French supermajor Total and Australian independent Woodside.

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The US has suspended all engagement with Myanmar under the bilateral Trade & Investment Framework Agreement, a move aligned with a greater emphasis on human rights and democracy under President Joe Biden.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that the suspension would remain in effect until "the return of a democratically elected government”.

Call for stronger international action

Previous Western sanctions against Myanmar during earlier times of military rule hit the nation’s economy hard and resulted in many job losses for locals. However, the pro-democracy movement is now calling for stronger international action against the junta.

The US State Department on 30 March announced it had ordered the departure of non-essential diplomats from Myanmar amid the military’s bloody crackdown on protesters that has seen more than 520 civilians killed since it seized power.

More than 3000 people — including Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, activists and protesters — have been detained, according to local human rights organisation Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Direct assault on transition to democracy

"These actions are a direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the efforts of the Burmese [Myanmarese] people to achieve a peaceful and prosperous future," said Tai.

More than 100 civilians were killed on Saturday alone as the military marked the annual Armed Forces Day with a large parade in the capital Naypyidaw and escalated violence in the nation’s towns and cities.

Security forces were filmed apparently shooting directly at protesters as well as into houses and cars. The military had earlier issued a chilling warning to demonstrators that they could be shot “in the head and back”.

'Indefensible acts'

“This 76th Myanmar Armed Forces Day will stay engraved as a day of terror and dishonour,” the European Union’s delegation to Myanmar said on Twitter.

Standing guard: soldiers in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw on 1 February after the military detained the country's President Win Myint and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi Photo: AFP/SCANPIX

“The killing of unarmed civilians including children are indefensible acts.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “horrified by the bloodshed perpetrated by Burmese security forces, showing that the junta will sacrifice the lives of the people to serve the few”.

In a serious escalation, the military last weekend launched airstrikes on the Karen ethnic minority, causing some 3000 to flee across the land border into neighbouring Thailand.

The Karen Peace Support Network said the attack took place after helicopter reconnaissance of the area with two fighter jets dropping nine bombs on the night of 27 March, killing three people and seriously injuring seven more.

There were more air attacks the following day including along the Salween River that marks Myanmar’s border with Thailand, reported Al Jazeera.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National Democratic Party, has been under house arrest since 1 February when the military took power.

This handout from the Royal Thai Army taken and released on 30 March, 2021 shows an injured Myanmar refugee being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap, after crossing the Salween river from the Myanmar side while fleeing from air strikes in Myanmar's eastern Karen state following the February military coup Photo: AFP/SCANPIX

She is due to appear in court on 1 April, after earlier postponements, to face charges including illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols. The military has also accused her of bribery.

Sanctions moves

The US trade suspension follows its sanctions last week on Myanma Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corporation — two conglomerates owned by the Tatmadaw (Army).

The European Union and the UK have also imposed sanctions in response to the coup and military crackdown but such diplomatic pressure to date has had no apparent impact on the junta.

Meanwhile, foreign chambers of commerce in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon representing Australian, UK, French and New Zealand businesses on Tuesday said in a statement: "Without a swift and peaceful resolution to the situation, it will be extremely difficult for responsible businesses to consider making additional investments in Myanmar.”

The Tatmadaw seized power two months ago after alleging electoral fraud in the November 2020 elections that the NLD won with a landslide majority.

However, some observers have suggested the move came as the generals were displeased with Aung San Suu Kyi seeking to amend the 2008 Constitution that guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament.