In the wake of Burma’s coup, new US legislation offers a roadmap for action
It’s been over half a year since Burma’s military seized power in a coup, overthrowing and imprisoning leaders of the elected government. The world watched as the people of Burma bravely took to the streets in nationwide mass protests. Millions of factory workers, students and others from all ethnicities and parts of society joined the thousands of striking civil servants in the nonviolent Civil Disobedience Movement to oppose the military’s actions and make clear that their voices cannot be ignored.
Burma’s military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” responded with a brutal campaign of violence and intimidation across the country. Soldiers have gunned down over 1,000 men, women and children in broad daylight, arrested thousands of activists and scores of journalists, imposed martial law in multiple areas, shut down independent media outlets and expanded internet and social media blackouts, closing off access to information for the people of Burma and for the outside world.
The situation continues to spiral out of control with open conflict escalating across the country, threatening to entrench civil conflict leading to the real possibility of a failed state in the heart of South-East Asia. Several of Burma’s most powerful ethnic armed groups are in active armed conflict against the Tatmadaw while the National Unity Government, a shadow government formed of elected members of parliament ousted in the coup along with ethnic and civil society representatives, has called for a nationwide uprising against the military. Meanwhile, the military continues to exploit the growing COVID-19 disaster to advance its own interests.
The coup and its aftermath have posed an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, coming only weeks after his inauguration and as he placed human rights and democracy at the center of his administration’s foreign policy priorities. President Biden arguably rose to the initial challenge and showed global leadership by making the U.S. the first country to impose targeted sanctions on the military and its economic interests after the coup.
Yesterday, Congress introduced the BURMA Act of 2021, a critical next step in responding to the calls of the Burmese people to do everything the U.S. can to support a return to democratic governance and to cut off the money funding the Burmese military. As this new bill makes clear, U.S. policy towards Burma in the midst of this crisis must focus on four pillars.
First, the U.S. must lead the coordination of like-minded allies and regional partners who remain crucial in exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on generals with few direct ties to the U.S. The bill directs the U.S. to redouble efforts to push the United Nations to take stronger action, including a global arms embargo that would slow the junta’s supply of high-tech weaponry and drones that it is using to spy on and attack protestors.
Second, the U.S. must target the sources of revenue that enable the Tatmadaw’s atrocities. First and foremost, this includes Burma’s gas industry and the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, the single largest source of foreign currency for Burma’s government, which provides over $1 billion per year to accounts that are now controlled by the military. Until a legitimate government is returned to power, money earned from gas production must be placed into accounts inaccessible to the military rather than providing a financial lifeline to the junta as its foreign currency reserves dwindle. Biden’s administration has thus far refused to sanction the industry, choosing to listen to gas industry lobbyists rather than the people of Burma, including 462 Burmese civil society organizations, Burma’s United Nations ambassador and the National Unity Government. The BURMA Act, which requires the administration to investigate and report on gas industry sanctions, is an opportunity for the administration to right this serious policy error and affirm that the U.S. supports human rights and democracy over the narrow business interests of a few multinational companies.
Third, U.S. policy must recognize that sanctions will not, on their own, force the Tatmadaw back to its barracks. The BURMA Act also supports the people of Burma who are leading this fight directly by channeling resources to the frontlines of the Civil Disobedience Movement, stepping up funding for civil society activists and supporting the remaining independent media that keeps people informed about what is happening. At the same time, the act provides funding for critical humanitarian needs, including the COVID-19 response and supports the hundreds of thousands of people already displaced by the conflict, largely due to military violence.
Finally, U.S. policy must reflect that the military has committed atrocities for decades against ethnic groups like the Rohingya, Kachin, Karen and Rakhine. America’s response to recent events should therefore answer longstanding calls for justice and accountability for the military’s crimes against humanity. Specifically, the U.S. must finally recognize the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingya people for what they were — genocide — and support the international justice mechanisms that seek to hold those responsible to account. The BURMA Act requires the secretary of state to issue a determination on whether the Tatmadaw has committed genocide and other crimes against humanity and makes clear the support in Congress for this important step.
The U.S. must also look to the future. Events following the coup have demonstrated that simply returning to the status quo is impossible, even were the military to hand power back to the civilian government. The Tatmadaw has shown that it will not abide by the incremental loss of power and privilege that the last decade of partial democratization brought, and the atrocities it is committing with increasing frequency against civilians show the lengths to which it will go to maintain its authority.
Those working for a return to democratic governance have made clear that for real and long-lasting change to happen, the 2008 constitution must be revisited to remove the special privileges granted to the Tatmadaw and bring the armed forces firmly under civilian control. There must also be a paradigm shift in Burma’s treatment of ethnic minority groups, including respecting their rights to control over land and natural resources and the free exercise of religion.
The NUG has already begun to make good on this promise by announcing the abolition of the 2008 constitution and promising a new federal charter once the military is removed from power. U.S. policy must support such attempts at ethnic reconciliation — it is only through a political solution to Burma’s internal conflicts that the country will have a truly sustainable democracy. We welcome the BURMA Act and urge Congress to move quickly to pass this important piece of legislation.
Paul Donowitz is the natural resource governance strategy lead at Global Witness.