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Here’s what must come next following US sanctions against Myanmar

It has been over two weeks since Myanmar’s military staged a coup, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders, bringing the Myanmar people’s decades-long struggle to escape military dictatorship and build a democracy to halt.

Since then, peaceful protests across Myanmar have gathered steam, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets across the country despite arrests and the increasing use of force by security forces. Intermittent internet shutdowns, a curfew and moves to criminalize the protest movement and restrict basic freedoms have failed to deter organizers who are demanding the release of civilian leaders and the restoration of the elected government. 

As the courageous people of Myanmar make their voices heard, much of the international community has also responded with condemnation of the coup, including President Biden who was himself recently confronted with the fragility of the U.S.’s own democracy and claims of a rigged election. Myanmar’s military takeover has presented the first real test of Biden’s newly announced foreign policy vision, which seeks to “earn back [America’s] leadership position” on the world stage and commits to “fighting to defend democracy” and “upholding universal rights.”

Last week the Biden administration unveiled its initial response to the coup in Myanmar with three actions: export controls to ensure that sensitive technology doesn’t make its way to the military, a blocking order to prevent $1 billion held in Myanmar government accounts in the U.S. from being taken by the military, and a sweeping executive order authorizing economic and travel sanctions against designated individuals and businesses in Myanmar. 

This executive order, released in full last Thursday, is particularly crucial because of the broad authority it provides to the Biden administration in selecting sanctions targets. It authorizes sanctions on high-ranking military officers and their families, officials appointed to the new military government, individuals who violate the human rights of people in Myanmar and on any company owned by a sanctioned individual or that provides material support to the military.

The Department of the Treasury (USDT) has announced the first sanctions under the new executive order, adding eight new high-ranking military officers and three gemstone companies, taking aim at an industry rife with military corruption. This is a good first step but the sanctions fall short by omitting critical individuals, entities and sources of revenue to the military. The Biden administration must go further if they are  truly committed to restoring America’s voice in global affairs.

Global Witness hopes and expects that the U.S. will expand its list of sanctioned individuals and companies. All serving officers of rank brigadier general or above, along with their families, should be added to the list, along with all serving or former members of the military who take a position within Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s illegitimate military government.

The U.S. should also impose targeted sanctions on the entirety of the military’s vast economic interests. The military’s financial tentacles extend to most major sectors of the economy, from the dominant role they play in the multibillion-dollar jade and gemstone industry, to significant stakes in banking, real estate and alcohol businesses, to name a few. This provides the military with multiple revenue streams, which help secure its political and economic control, line officers’ pockets and fund its operations, including ongoing human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. For the sanctions to have real bite, the U.S. must therefore sanction all companies owned by individual officers as well as the large conglomerates and their subsidiaries, which are owned by the military. 

At the same time, the U.S. must avoid imposing broad, sectoral sanctions that were in place until 2016, which risk disproportionately harming civilians who were already facing increased economic hardship due to the pandemic and whose situation is likely to worsen under renewed military rule. 

While U.S. sanctions are an important first step, they are by no means a silver bullet. Limited connections between Myanmar’s military-linked business and the U.S. economy means that Biden also needs to honor his promise to bring together the international community in a coordinated response. This must include encouraging international allies to join the U.S. in authorizing targeted sanctions and engaging in a concerted diplomatic effort to hold the military to account, with a particular focus on influential regional partners in Asia.

Crucially, targeted sanctions do not mean disengaging or cutting off all economic relationships with the country as a whole. It is more important than ever that the U.S. and other countries support the people of Myanmar, both by continuing trade with non-military entities and by providing support to civilians, activists, internally displaced people and persecuted populations. On this front, it’s encouraging to see that Biden has redirected more than $40 million of development assistance away from work that benefits the Myanmar government to programs that support and strengthen civil society. 

If Biden is able to isolate the military economically through expanded but targeted U.S. sanctions combined with international diplomacy and coordination, while also supporting civilians, it will show that Myanmar generals’ blatant attack on the will of the people will not be tolerated by the international community. It will also help demonstrate that “America is back” as a global champion of democratic values.

Paul Donowitz is campaign leader on Natural Resource Governance and Anti-Corruption Norms at Global Witness, an organization that challenges abuses of power to protect human rights and secure the future of our planet.