By Tommy Walker
Bangkok — Sanctions imposed on Myanmar officials aren’t enough to force change within the conflict-torn country, experts say.
This week, Britain, Canada and the United States imposed targeted sanctions on officials, coinciding with the anniversary of the coup that toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, 2021.
Those sanctioned include Union Attorney General Thida Oo, Supreme Court Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo, along with Tin Oo, the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission and U Thein Soe, a former military general who was appointed the chair of Myanmar’s election commission following the coup.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday decried “interference in internal affairs.”
The latest sanctions aren’t enough to upset the junta, according to Ben Hardman, a Myanmar legal and policy adviser based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the non-profit EarthRights International.
“When a country like the U.S. sanctions a person or company, it generally means that their U.S. assets are blocked and that people or companies in the U.S. cannot do business with them. So, sanctions may have very little impact on individuals in Myanmar that do not have interests outside of the country,” Hardman told VOA.
“These latest sanctions add to the pressure on the junta, but these are small straws that will not break the camel’s back any time soon,” he added.
After the military removed the democratically elected government last year, ousted politicians formed the National Unity Government or NUG, maintaining they are the legitimate leaders of Myanmar.
Tung Aung Shwe, the NUG’s representative to Australia, told VOA the latest sanctions are welcome but more must be forthcoming to deal a real blow to the junta.
“It is very welcome to hear the announcements of the U.K., U.S. and Canadian governments for their additional targeted sanctions on some members and associates of the Myanmar military junta,” Tun Aung Shwe said.
“It is imperative that sanctions be imposed on the junta’s Ministry of Oil, Gas and Energy (MoGE), the main source of revenue for its military power to suppress the people of Myanmar,” he added.
Since the coup, Myanmar’s economy has collapsed. The World Bank had forecast that Myanmar’s GDP would see an 18% drop in 2021, while Fitch Solutions, a U.S. credit rating agency, predicted Myanmar would suffer a 4.4% contraction for 2022.
Amid the economic decline, Myanmar relies more heavily on income from vital offshore projects that produce and export natural gas. Major investors have included Chevron Corp. of the U.S. and Myanma State Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), of Myanmar.
Gas projects are expected to account for $1.4 billion, or slightly more than 10% of Myanmar’s total revenue in 2022, according to the Myanmar Now news service.
Last month, Chevron and French oil firm TotalEnergies announced they will pull out of Myanmar’s main offshore gas field, citing the coup. International attention has now turned to more targeted sanctions on MOGE.
Khin Ohmar, a veteran pro-democracy activist and founder of Progressive Voice, a human rights organization, urges more interruption of the junta’s income streams.
“The only income in terms of hard currency that the military junta can still collect is natural resource revenues, particularly from oil and gas. The junta and its affiliated companies will not be able to sustain the brutal terror campaign against the population without the financial power that these revenues provide,” she said.
“We particularly need President Biden and President Macron to impose sanctions on the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise to stop oil and gas revenues from flowing to the junta,” she added, referring to U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Although Myanmar has suffered decades of fighting with ethnic armed organizations, the junta is now involved in daily fighting with the country’s growing People Defense Forces, as thousands of anti-coup protesters have taken up arms to resist the military government. The PDF is the armed wing of the National Unity Government.
Widespread protests against military rule have been met violently by junta forces. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-profit monitoring group based in Thailand, at least 1,510 people have been killed by the military.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet recently told the BBC that the conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma, should now be termed a civil war. She called on the U.N. Security Council to take “stronger action” to pressure the military to restore democracy.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn last month acknowledged the situation has “all the ingredients” for civil war. Prak Sokhonn is also ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, ASEAN being the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The 10-member grouping agreed in April to a “five-point consensus” aimed at halting the deteriorating conditions in Myanmar. Little progress has been made as the military continues to suppress dissent.
Khin Ohmar said the ASEAN effort has been “pointless” thus far.
“The situation in Myanmar clearly poses a threat to international peace and security, yet the West continues to default to ASEAN’s role and its so-called five-point consensus, or ‘five-pointless consensus’ as we call it. The more the international community waits, the more emboldened the junta will become as it escalates its crimes against humanity and war crimes,” she said.
The military government said Thursday it is “committed” to peace, stability and the interests of its people in accordance with the five-point plan. The junta also rejected what it termed as statements that interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
The U.N.’s special envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, is still hoping for a cease-fire from all parties. In a recent interview with Channel News Asia, she said the anti-military opposition must negotiate a power-sharing agreement to fix Myanmar’s current political and human rights crisis.
But 247 Myanmar civil society organizations have sharply rebuffed the possibility of a coalition. A joint statement said the special envoy must “understand the root causes of the current crisis and genuinely listen to the calls of the people.”
Myanmar gained independence in 1948 from Britain, but for most of its modern history has been under military rule.
In the November 2020 general elections, the military claimed widespread electoral fraud, without evidence. The coup saw the democratically elected government removed with its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint detained and sentenced to multiple prison terms.