United States Sanctions Myanmar over Human Rights Violations

The United States has recently placed sanctions against individuals in the highest ranks of the Myanmar Armed Forces (known as the Tatmadaw) and a number of major economic entities in Myanmar. These measures are part of an international response to a military coup d’état in Myanmar where the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government was overthrown on February 1, 2021. The US, in coordination with the UK, has imposed these sanctions to send a clear message that the Myanmar military’s disregard for democracy and ongoing repression of the Burmese people is unacceptable.

On March 25, 2021 the U.S. Treasury Department issued new sanctions targeting holding companies that provide economic resources to Myanmar’s military. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC). This step follows an initial round of measures in early February placed against individuals such as the Commander-in-Chief and Deputy-Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw for their role in the coup.

According to a memo released by the U.S. Treasury Department, the Tatmadaw has been able to augment its operational budget and control significant portions of Myanmar’s economy through the MEHL, a vast military conglomerate, and MEC, which provides natural resources and manufactured goods for military use. Both companies dominate lucrative sectors of the economy, such as mining, telecommunication, alcohol, cigarettes, natural resources, and consumer goods. MEC is led by Sergeant General Min Aung Hlaing, whom OFAC designated on December 10, 2019 for his connection to serious human rights abuses, and on February 11, 2021 for leading the coup.

The designation against Hlaing and nine other individuals, and the sanctions against the MEHL and MEC impose an asset freeze by prohibiting persons in the U.S. from dealing in any property of these entities or providing financial or related services to them. These sanctions will create significant difficulties for the conglomerates since the move effectively blocks them out of the U.S. banking system. These moves have been welcomed by human rights watchdogs, with the Myanmar Campaign Leader at Global Witness stating, “This is an important step in cutting off key sources of funding to the military regime. MEHL and MEC provide vast amounts of revenues to the military, helping to enable its illegitimate power grab and fund its abuses against the people of Myanmar.”

The Tatmadaw and their newly established governing body, the State Administrative Council, has systematically perpetrated widespread human rights abuses through coercive legislation and use of force since seizing control of the government. According to Global Affairs Canada, these human rights violations include “mass arbitrary detentions, restrictions of access to information and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, association and assembly.” The people of Myanmar have responded to February’s coup with a mass uprising, which security forces have attempted to quell with a campaign of violence and fear.

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners has verified a total of 328 deaths in the post-coup crackdown. On March 27 as many as 114 protesters were killed by security personnel as Myanmar’s military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday in the capital, drawing international condemnation. The new sanctions are part of a broader diplomatic effort by the international community to stand in solidarity with the Burmese people and support their aspirations for a democratic future.