Updated at 6:20 p.m.
The United States will offer temporary protected status to people from Myanmar who fear returning home, the Biden administration said Friday, as it tries to ratchet up pressure on military coup leaders in the Southeast Asian country, and provide protection to some of those criticizing it.
"Due to the military coup and security forces' brutal violence against civilians, the people of Burma are suffering a complex and deteriorating humanitarian crisis in many parts of the country," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement, using another name for Myanmar. "After a thorough review of this dire situation, I have designated Burma for Temporary Protected Status so that Burmese nationals and habitual residents may remain temporarily in the United States."
Senior Biden administration officials told NPR ahead of the announcement that they estimate the new protection will likely cover about 1,600 people who are already in the U.S., allowing them to continue to live and work in the country legally for the next 18 months.
The move comes in response to the Feb. 1 coup and the ensuing crackdown on protesters. A United Nations human rights investigator said, as of Thursday, security forces killed at least 70 people.
"Due to the military coup and security forces' brutal violence against civilians, the people of Burma are suffering a complex and deteriorating humanitarian crisis in many parts of the country,"
"After a thorough review of this dire situation, I have designated Burma for Temporary Protected Status so that Burmese nationals and habitual residents may remain temporarily in the United States,"
"The coup has worsened humanitarian conditions by limiting access to life-saving assistance. It's disrupting flights carrying humanitarian medical aid and spurring an economic crisis, so such conditions prevent Burmese nationals and residents from returning safely," one senior administration official said.
"We want to ensure that all Burmese nationals feel like they can safely speak up for democracy," another U.S. official said. They pointed out that the temporary protected status could apply to diplomats from Myanmar, who have publicly broken ranks with the coup leaders and stated their support for detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Only people from Myanmar who already reside in the U.S. are eligible for the temporary protection, the Department of Homeland Security said. But the department added that coronavirus pandemic-related border restrictions remain in place and citizens inside Myanmar "should not believe smugglers or others claiming the border is now open."
Myanmar's military rulers announced last month that they fired the country's U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, after he made an emotional plea to the U.N. General Assembly to "to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military and to provide safety and security for the people of Myanmar."
Myanmar's U.N. envoy Kyaw Moe Tun made an emotional appeal at the United Nations for action to stop the military coup, including ending his speech with a three-fingered salute used by protesters https://t.co/n3VTj5KkIH pic.twitter.com/SuP2ZFq94R— Reuters (@Reuters) February 27, 2021
U.S. officials say they still consider him as Myanmar's permanent representative to the global body. The U.N. still recognizes him too, though spokesman Stéphane Dujarric called it a "unique situation," saying "we are trying to sort through all the legal protocol and other implications."
The U.S. has been in contact with military leaders "both through public messaging and targeted diplomatic outreach" to urge them to "release all those detained, avoid violence against the Burmese public, restore and maintain telecommunications services, and respect the outcome of the 2020 elections, which were credible and largely representative of the will of the people," said one senior administration official.
It is also continuing to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for the coup and for violence against protesters, as well as sanctioning two adult children of the military commander in chief and companies run by them.
China has considerable influence in Myanmar but has tread carefully. Biden administration officials point out that China did agree on a U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning the violence against peaceful protesters and calling for the release of Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.