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ASEAN: Act to Stop Myanmar Military Abuses

November 1st, 2022  •  Author:   Human Rights Watch  •  6 minute read
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Activists protest the Myanmar military coup during an ASEAN summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2021. © 2021 Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo

Concerned Governments Should Support Targeted Sanctions, Arms Embargo

(New York) – Governments attending summits in Asia in November 2022 should support tougher sanctions and other measures to address widespread abuses by Myanmar’s military, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments should agree on new measures to cut off the Myanmar junta’s foreign currency revenues and impose embargos on arms and aviation fuel.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet November 10-13 in Cambodia for the ASEAN Summit and side meetings with the United States, the European Union, Japan, and other dialogue partners. The summit will be followed by a G20 leaders meeting in Indonesia and a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group the following week.

“Myanmar’s military is committing atrocities while ASEAN countries and others just stand on the sidelines,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not enough to condemn the junta and hope it will change its conduct or move toward democracy: stronger actions are needed.”

Human Rights Watch has found that the junta’s widespread and systematic abuses since the February 2021 coup – including extrajudicial killings, torture, and wrongful imprisonment – amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Junta authorities have also severely cracked down on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

ASEAN members and like-minded G20 and APEC leaders should agree on a stronger message to send to the Myanmar junta on consequences for ongoing rights violations. Sanctions should be tied to clear benchmarks, including the release of political prisoners, a cessation of attacks on civilians, and steps toward the establishment of civilian democratic rule, among other actions.

At a previous summit in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar’s junta chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, agreed to a “five point consensus”: an immediate end to violence in the country; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and a visit by the special envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties. Days later, the junta called the consensus “suggestions” and in the year and a half since, Min Aung Hlaing has defied almost every point in the agreement while overseeing a brutal nationwide crackdown aimed at suppressing the millions of people in Myanmar who oppose military rule.

An October European Parliament resolution noted that “the Five-Point Consensus has not led to any results and calls on ASEAN to acknowledge that Min Aung Hlaing’s junta is not a reliable partner; urges ASEAN and its members to negotiate a new agreement on the crisis in Myanmar with the NUG [National Unity Government, a civilian structure] and to provide that new agreement with enforcement mechanisms, with a view to achieving a sustainable, democratic resolution of the crisis in the future.”

Several ASEAN countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, have acknowledged the failure of the agreement. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, in an address before the UN General Assembly in September, noted that “Malaysia is disappointed that there is no meaningful progress in the implementation of the ASEAN ‘Five Point Consensus’ … In its current form, the ASEAN ‘Five Point Consensus’ cannot continue any longer.” A new “refined” agreement, he said, should be reached “based on a clearer framework, timeframe and end goal.”

Like-minded ASEAN members should lead the bloc toward an overhaul of its approach, Human Rights Watch said. ASEAN has already barred junta representatives from high-level meetings, noting at the August Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that they were “deeply disappointed by the limited progress in and lack of commitment of the Nay Pyi Taw authorities.”

The ministers committed to assessing Myanmar’s progress on the consensus to guide the bloc’s next steps, “consistent with Article 20 of the ASEAN Charter,” which provides for serious breaches of the Charter or noncompliance. As part of its review, ASEAN should consider suspending Myanmar to uphold the bloc’s commitment to a “people-oriented, people-centered ASEAN,” Human Rights Watch said.

ASEAN leaders should also signal their support for a UN Security Council resolution imposing a global arms embargo on Myanmar, which purchases weapons from both China and Russia.

ASEAN should also signal support for stronger enforcement of economic measures targeting the junta’s revenues, much of which are paid or held in US, British, and EU currencies.

Since the coup, the US, EU, and several other governments have imposed rounds of targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military and military-owned businesses. In February, the EU adopted new sanctions against Myanmar’s military-owned Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), but the US and United Kingdom have not followed suit.

The US and UK governments have also not pursued stronger actions at the UN. In October, the UK government began distributing drafts of a resolution on Myanmar among members of the UN Security Council, but they and other supportive members have not advanced debate on it in the face of certain opposition by the governments of Russia and China. Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia three times since the coup and Russia has increased exports to Myanmar of military aircraft, fuel, and weapons.

Some foreign officials have contended in meetings with Human Rights Watch that US and EU sanctions on the military are ineffectual and have not affected the junta’s actions. But the sanctions imposed so far have primarily targeted domestic businesses controlled by the junta inside the country and revenues collected and held in Myanmar banks, which are beyond the reach of outside sanctions. Hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign revenues from natural gas and mining continue to flow into the junta’s bank accounts, including from Thailand and China and via companies in Malaysia, Singapore, and other ASEAN countries.

Chinese companies in particular, including state-owned companies, have continued to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of gas, metals, and precious stones and gems. The junta can use these foreign revenues to buy arms, materiel, and aviation fuel to carry out unlawful attacks during military operations.

ASEAN governments should support the sanctions, help enforce them, and use their interactions with the junta to communicate the steps they need to take to have them eased. Thailand’s government, which is closer to Myanmar diplomatically and economically, is especially important in this regard. ASEAN and its dialogue partners, as well as G20 members meeting after ASEAN, should also agree to enforce other economic restrictions more rigorously, including anti-money laundering laws, on bank accounts controlled by the junta. Myanmar military-controlled entities hold foreign currency accounts in banks in Singapore and Thailand, among other locations.

“The effectiveness of sanctions against Myanmar’s junta shouldn’t be judged until strong international sanctions are in place,” Pearson said. “Concerned governments need to cut off the junta from all funds being used to commit human rights abuses.”

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