Activists offer qualified praise as US promises ‘lockstep’ action against Myanmar regime

Lauding sanctions imposed on the Myanmar military regime and its associates this week, a State Department spokesperson emphasised the United States’ and its allies’ commitment to halting any enablement of the junta’s atrocities, while pro-democracy activists noted both merits and defects in the new measures. 

“In lockstep with our partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, our sanctions have been an important component in showing that the United States and its partners stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and will take action against those enabling the military regime,” Derek Chollet, a counsellor at the US Department of State, said in a press conference on Wednesday. 

The American government had enacted legislation in December authorising discretionary sanctions against associates of the Myanmar regime, without specifying to whom they would apply. On Tuesday the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated three entities and six individuals based in Myanmar as subject to US sanctions, prohibiting business with them and freezing their assets. 

Marking the second anniversary of the Myanmar coup, the US was joined on the same day by Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom in imposing sanctions against the junta and its network of enablers, suppliers and cronies. 

The list of US sanctions targets included two Myanmar state-owned mining companies (Mining Enterprise No. 1 and Mining Enterprise No. 2), the junta’s energy minister Myo Myint Oo, and two individuals in the upper management of the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a state-run fossil fuel company. 

However, none of the allies’ sanctions directly targeted MOGE as an entity.

“The US has sanctioned the illegal junta’s energy minister and the managing director and deputy managing director of MOGE, responsible for the junta’s biggest source of foreign revenue,” noted Justice For Myanmar (JFM), an organisation of covert pro-democracy investigators and activists, in a statement on Tuesday. “But the US has disappointingly failed to sanction MOGE.”

Among Myanmar’s state-owned entities, MOGE represents the single largest source of revenue for the regime and has been identified by pro-democracy activists as a key enabler of its human rights abuses. 

Two Western oil companies—the American company Chevron and France’s Total Energies—withdrew from a collaborative energy development project with MOGE in January 2022 citing concerns about violence and human rights violations in Myanmar. However, the EU is the only entity that has imposed legal sanctions against MOGE to date. 

Despite this criticism, JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung hailed the new sanctions as a needed step towards inflicting costs on the junta and stopping the enablement of its atrocities against Myanmar’s people. 

“We welcome the latest round of sanctions from Australia, Canada, the UK and USA, which target military conglomerates, state-owned enterprises illegally controlled by the junta, and the military’s jet fuel supply chain,” she said in the statement. 

When asked whether the new sanctions were likely to succeed in exerting pressure on the Myanmar military,  Chollet addressed potential doubts about their effectiveness. 

“We think it’s very important to try to ensure that the junta has fewer ways to acquire arms, to generate revenue, and to gain legitimacy. And we believe that that’s why sanctions against individuals and entities that are critical to the junta’s ability to generate revenue and acquire arms are very important,” the State Department official said. 

Chollet also emphasised the costs inflicted on junta officials. 

“And we have seen, by the way, the sanctions have had an effect on the junta—the economy last year in Myanmar contracted by nearly 20 percent.  We’ve seen investors fleeing. We see foreign currency reserves dwindling.  And we see it becoming harder for the regime to acquire arms… They’re having to take more extraordinary steps to steer clear of sanctions,” he explained.  

Also on the US list of sanctioned entities was the junta-controlled election commission, which has been preparing to hold a vote designed to legitimise the regime’s claim to power. The designation came a day before military council chief Min Aung Hlaing announced an extension of the declared state of emergency in Myanmar, which could require postponing the planned elections.

Australian foreign minister Penny Wong announced legislative amendments on Tuesday applying sanctions to 16 individuals in or connected with the junta, including coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, and two military conglomerates: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited. 

Australia had previously prohibited trade with Myanmar in arms or related military equipment, but had not changed its regulations regarding business with Myanmar nationals since 2018, despite urging from activists to implement sanctions against the junta after the 2021 coup. 

The new rules targeting the regime are targeted, prohibiting business with specific individuals or entities implicated in human rights violations or corruption, in contrast to broad sanctions imposed on a country and its population as a whole. 

This was the first instance of Australia applying new sanctions to targets in Myanmar since the coup.  

“My judgement is that the time has come for sanctions,” Wong said in a public statement, citing the military’s refusal to abide by international measures aimed at abating the conflict in Myanmar. 

“Australia will continue to monitor the regime’s actions. We will be looking to see improvements for people on the ground and moves towards the restoration of democracy, including credible elections,” she added. 

The Canadian and UK governments’ sanctions took direct aim at suppliers of jet fuel to the Myanmar military, which has enabled indiscriminate aerial attacks by the military causing hundreds of civilian fatalities. 

Canada’s new regulations included a blanket prohibition on the trade of aviation fuel with Myanmar, added as an amendment to a preexisting arms embargo. The UK imposed sanctions on the entities Asia Sun Trading Company Limited and Cargo Link Company Limited, both known suppliers of fuel to junta forces. 

While welcoming the new sanctions, JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung urged further action, calling on all four governments to sanction MOGE and adopt a total ban on the supply of jet fuel to Myanmar, and appealing to Asian democracies–namely Japan, South Korea, and India–to join the Western governments in sanctioning the junta. 

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