Myanmar, Sanctions, and the Path to Peace

On March 22, the situation in Myanmar became increasingly tense, as the Biden administration and the EU both imposed a new round of sanctions on the military regime that recently came to power. While the OWP and myself in particular have covered the situation’s development before, I feel it is necessary for context’s sake to provide a quick summary of the events that have led up to Monday’s decision. After we gain a solid grasp of the situation at hand, I will then analyze the Biden administration’s actions and offer my support or counter-proposals to the newly imposed sanctions. With all of this clearly laid out, let’s now examine what exactly happened in Myanmar.

On February 1st, the Myanmar military (formerly known as the Burmese military) overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, when the Burmese military’s democratic candidate lost the Myanmar 2020 election in a crushing defeat. Detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the Myanmar parliament on the day they would have confirmed the election results, the Myanmar military has once again thrown the country into political chaos, as their actions have sparked mass protests. Since the late 1980s, the Myanmar military has largely ruled the region through a military dictatorship, with only a brief decade-long reprieve of democracy from 2010 to 2021. While this short phase of democracy occurred due to decades of organized protests led by the controversial Aung San Suu Kyi, February’s events have once again plunged Myanmar’s government into the morally reprehensible depths of brutal authoritarianism.

While I hope the brief crash course on Myanmar’s political history was useful, I now want to shift focus and examine the rising sanctions that are being imposed on the Myanmar region. It is first off important to note that the March 22nd announcement was not the first instance of a US-led economic response to the military coup. On February 10th, nine days after the democratic government’s overthrow, President Joe Biden had announced a round of sanctions that would prevent the highest-ranking generals in Myanmar from accessing around 1 billion dollars in funds that their government keeps in the United States. These sanctions are overlaid on top of previous sanctions that were targeted at three high-ranking Myanmar generals in response to the Rohingya Genocide from the previous Trump Administration. What makes this week’s particularly noteworthy though, is that they now not only include the EU’s economic blacklisting of 11 Myanmar generals but also the EU is now likely to take much stronger measures and bar EU banks and investors from doing business with the Myanmar military-run NGOs, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation.  Both of these future measures are building upon the 2018 EU arms embargo that was provoked by the Myanmar military-led genocide of the Rohingya people.

At first glance these increasing sanctions might seem like a perfectly laudable set of actions by the United States government and the European Union, however, as is often the case with global international relations, things are often more complicated than they initially appear. On a surface level, a series of sanctions that are only targeted at the offending Myanmar generals, and thus circumvent damaging the Myanmar people, seems like a perfect punitive measure for peacefully defending democracy yet when we look at the likely effects of these policies, however, we can see that a lot more work has to be done. First of all, we must address the historically problematic nature of arms embargoes (in light of the current 2018 one that is enacted on Myanmar by the EU). While it might seem paradoxical for a non-profit devoted towards world peace to critique and point out possible shortcomings in an arms embargo, I truly believe that free access to information is a prerequisite for any desirable social society, and thus feel morally obligated to point out potential flaws of such a policy. 

When I personally first read the phrase arms embargo, memories of case studies of the Srebenica massacre and the Bosnian genocide came to mind. For those who are unaware, in the 1990s, a Serbian-led genocide of the Bosnian ethnic minority occurred, and it was ultimately exacerbated by a UN arms embargo. While the Serbian military had multiple ways of gaining weaponry that circumvented the sanctions, the underfunded and smaller Bosnian minority had no way of gaining access to weapons to defend themselves. This, unfortunately, led to the tragic massacre at the “sanctuary city” of Srebrenica. Worst of all there was a notable outcry from the Bosnian people to the western powers to lift the embargo in order to be able to defend themselves. These powers, however, in an arrogant and high-minded approach that claimed to truly understand the road to peace largely ignored these outcries and maintained the detrimental policy. My reasoning for bringing up this historical tragedy is not to necessarily critique arms embargoes as a practice but rather to highlight the importance of Western listening to the actual peoples in need of support. I hope that the EU and the West going forward can listen to the people of Myanmar and avoid repeating such an arrogant and costly error. This is especially relevant when considering my next point. 

While US and EU targeted sanctions can be useful and ideologically look nice they are likely going to be ineffective without Chinese cooperation. As China is responsible for building the vast majority of Myanmar’s infrastructure and is Myanmar’s predominant trading partner, no amount of sanctions (no matter how perfectly targeted) will be able to have any meaningful effect without China’s support. What this ultimately means is that the United State’s ability to cooperate with China will once again be put to the test. As currently China and the United States are in a political, economic, and arms race, the Biden administration will have an increasingly difficult challenge to find a way to work with the Chinese government in order to make sure that Myanmar military leaders cannot gain access to Chinese based assets as well.

This ultimately leads me to my final critique before I posit a possible course correction for this situation. Even if we listened to the Myanmar people and were able to secure Chinese cooperation, the possible EU sanctions against the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation could have potentially devastating consequences to the Myanmar people. Even though these quasi-private organizations are run by the Myanmar military, the conglomerates all throughout the Myanmar economy from mining to manufacturing to banking to hotels to telecom to even food and beverage. What this ultimately means is that these organizations employ and provide for a massive section of the Myanmar populace. Therefore, it is an unfortunate likelihood that an attack on these institutions will likely catch civilians in the economic crossfire. While humanitarian loss might be unavoidable in order to effectively wrap up this growing crisis, these potential factors must be kept in mind when enacting policy, and we need to have the proper forecasting to see what are the potential damages in humanitarian terms if we are going to even debate enacting such far-reaching economic sanctions.

Lastly, as I wrap up this update on the Myanmar situation I only wish to add one final note. Throughout my research on this topic, I noticed that proposals to have private non-profits, or government-backed NGOs provide funding and aid to the currently protesting Myanmar peoples are absent. I would argue that this is an incredibly relevant observation as these styles of policies allow for a lot more flexibility while circumventing the previously mentioned issue of silencing the very people that the policies aim to help. These types of policies also uphold the people’s right to self-determination, while further strengthening the people (and in the truest sense the Myanmar nation) from further political instability. While that observation is a purely personal one, I cannot help but feel that we must advocate for these styles of policies as well to further expand the tools that we as global people have at our disposal to further promote world peace.