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US Senate passes defence bill authorising sanctions against Myanmar military and aid for opposition

A bill broadening the US government’s authority to sanction Myanmar’s coup regime and assist opposition groups passed in the United States’ upper legislative chamber by a vote of 83 to 11 on Thursday.

The latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that sets spending priorities for the US Department of Defense each year, includes amendments stating the US government’s support for ending military rule in Myanmar. The legislation also authorises non-lethal support for ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), the People’s Defence Force (PDF), and other groups fighting for that cause. 

In a statement announcing the NDAA’s passage on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee made no mention of the Myanmar-related amendments. 

Having passed in both houses of Congress, the bill will now be sent to US President Joseph Biden for approval. The president is expected to sign it into law within days.

The process leading to the passage of this legislation was long and complicated. 

Two months after the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, earlier legislation was introduced in the US Congress containing many of the same provisions, known as the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability (BURMA) Act of 2021.

The earlier BURMA Act of 2021 passed in the US House of Representatives, Congress’s lower chamber, but was never brought to a vote in the upper chamber, the US Senate, and did not become law. 

Advocates and lawmakers then pushed to include parts of the 2021 bill as amendments to the NDAA for fiscal year 2023, again using the shorthand “the BURMA Act” to refer to the amendments. 

The NDAA has passed in both chambers of Congress every year since 1961. The incorporation of the BURMA Act into the defence bill practically ensured it would become law as a matter of course.

US Senators voted to pass the NDAA on December 15

The newly passed BURMA Act commits the US government to providing “technical support and non-lethal assistance” to EAOs, the PDF, and other “pro-democracy movement organizations” fighting the junta. The promised non-lethal assistance can include intelligence sharing, battlefield medicine, and funds for organisations facilitating military defections, but the “non-lethal” designation precludes supplying arms.

Although the legislation does not expressly recognise the publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG), National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), or Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) as legitimate governing bodies, it does state the US government’s support for these opposition entities by name. 

Acting president of the NUG Duwa Lashi La released a statement hailing the legislation’s passage and lauding its support for Myanmar’s opposition.

“The [BURMA] Act will provide much needed hope and support to the struggling people of our country,” the NUG leader said. “We also thank the [Myanmar] diaspora and people of good conscience across the US who worked tirelessly in support of this achievement. It is only through working together with our brothers and sisters around the world that we will bring democracy back to our people.”

The significance of this legislation for Myanmar remains to be seen. The effectiveness of non-lethal assistance is especially uncertain given the junta’s pervasive use of deadly violence to exert control.

Moreover, many sanctions authorised by the bill are discretionary rather than mandatory, meaning that the US government has yet to decide which entities and individuals will be subject to sanctions. The only mandatory sanctions, which must go into effect within 180 days of the bill becoming law, are those targeting individual junta officials. 

The scope of the discretionary sanctions is therefore undetermined as yet and may be subject to long deliberations. It remains unclear, for instance, whether sanctions will affect the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, which anti-junta activists have long identified as a crucial revenue source enabling the regime’s abuses. 

Editor’s note: The US government adheres to a policy of referring to Myanmar by the older name of “Burma.”

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