MIG - 29 of Myanmar Air Force. Source: Wikipedia - Photo: 2023

Myanmar: As ASEAN Crumbles, Western Sanctions Are Starting to Bite

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS 10 July 2023 (IDN) — According to a World Bank report released at the end of June, Myanmar’s economy stabilized in the first half of 2023. But this isn’t exactly good news, as the report points out that the economy is still lagging far behind that of the region. GDP growth of 3 percent last year is far from compensating for the 18 percent drop in 2021, the year of the coup. So, in this context, ‘stability’ is almost synonymous with stagnation.

“Exchange rates have remained stable while inflation in food and fuel prices has eased,” the report said, indicating that some of the biggest financial threats to the regime – exchange rates and fuel prices – have diminished for now.

However, ordinary people continue to suffer. Although 9 million people entered the labor force between 2017 and last year, employment fell by 9 percent over the same period.

In addition, the report calculated that last year 40 percent of the working-age population was neither employed nor seeking education or training; an increase of 6 million people compared to 2017.

The picture was hardly brighter for those who had a job last year, the World Bank said, pointing to a 15 percent drop in wages from 2017 to last year.

“We must end a culture of impunity.”

The report, ‘Missed opportunities‘, published in February by international NGOs Earthrights International and Global Witness criticized the ineffectiveness of sanctions regimes in place and called for closer coordination between the governments that imposed these sanctions to hold the junta and its “suppliers” accountable.

In May, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, published an investigation into the junta’s arms suppliers.

Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council, British Human Rights Ambassador Rita French reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s commitment to this cause, in addition to pledging funds from her government for the humanitarian response following Cyclone Mocha and the UN investigation into human rights violations in Myanmar.

“The UK will continue to apply pressure through international fora, targeted sanctions and other means to respond to the military’s actions,” French said. “We must end a culture of impunity.”

Since the publication of the report, the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have joined the EU in imposing new sanctions against the junta, and may further expand them at the urging of human rights defenders.

US sanctions hit state banks

In what many are calling the most significant punitive action to date, the US Treasury Department on June 21 sanctioned two state-owned banks – Myanma Foreign Trade Bank and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank – and the Myanmar Ministry of Defense. Tackling the regime’s main currency channels could be a turning point.

The Defense Ministry analyzed the role of the Burmese Ministry of Finance in importing equipment and weapons worth at least $1 billion, and sanctioned companies into Russia. It also highlighted the vital role of the two state-owned banks as exchange offices for the Tatmadaw.

Action group Justice For Myanmar welcomed the sanctions, but reiterated its call for direct sanctions against the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). Justice for Myanmar spokesman Yadanar Maung said: “We welcome the latest round of US sanctions against junta-controlled banks that help support the junta’s terror campaign. … However, for sanctions to be effective, much more needs to be done to systematically crack down on the junta’s financial and arms-buying networks by the US and its allies.”

“Justice For Myanmar calls for urgent sanctions against Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, which continues to fund the junta’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as the junta’s network of cronies and arms dealers.”

There was some unexpected news on July 6.

Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise Exposed

On July 6, Tatmadaw soldiers raided Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise in Nay Pyi Taw. Several senior officials were interrogated and detained. The junta was apparently looking for a whistleblower who leaked a document to Myanmar Now.

The document that started the drama was a leaked letter from the regime’s energy ministry to the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBG) dated April 19. The report said the regime holds about $500 million in foreign bank accounts and that the Department of Energy requested in the letter to ask the central bank to open new accounts for MOGE with the state-run Myanmar Economic Bank.

The letter stated that the bills could be a temporary solution to sanctions imposed on MOGE by the European Union last year, and sanctions imposed by the United States against the company’s general manager and deputy directors in February. A retired central bank official told Myanmar Now that the MEB is the regime’s last option since the US sanctioned state-run Myanma Foreign Trade Bank and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank on June 21.

Germany wants more effective sanctions against aerial bombings

Germany is also tightening its attitude towards the junta and is pressing the European Commission for more sanctions.

“The federal government sees opportunities to make the sanctions more effective, especially in the jet fuel sector. The aim is not just to look at individuals, but at the sector as a whole,” stated the Bundestag press release.

The need for measures to limit the military’s access to jet fuel was apparent even before Amnesty International released the report ‘Deadly Cargo‘ last November detailing how the junta is using its air force to commit human rights abuses in Myanmar. Among the companies named in the report are oil and gas companies Chevron, ExxonMobil, Rosneft, PetroChina and Thai Oil, as well as Korean shipping company Pan Ocean and Norwegian marine group Wilhelmsen.

Not only does the junta rely heavily on air superiority to maintain a combat advantage over resistance fighters in the country, but it also regularly terrorizes civilians with indiscriminate airstrikes, sometimes killing dozens.

The worst of these incidents since the regime came to power was an unprovoked airstrike on the village of Pa Zi Gyi, Kanbalu Township in the Sagaing region, which killed at least 170 unarmed people in April.

In reviewing the rationale for sanctions, the German Parliamentary Human Rights Commission examined the wider humanitarian and political situation in Myanmar.

The Foreign Ministry representative described the state of Myanmar’s internal conflict as “a stalemate between the army and opposition groups, which is becoming increasingly bloody”, and stressed that despite the regime’s brutality “it not yet succeeded in gaining full control”.

The discussion also touched on how Cyclone Mocha had exacerbated an already serious humanitarian crisis, resulting in the conflict displacing 1.8 million people from their homes. Despite their intention to extend existing sanctions against the regime, the Bundestag plans to increase funding for humanitarian aid to Myanmar this year.

ASEAN continues to disintegrate

As many feared, the “informal discussion” convened by Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in Pattaya on June 19 gave junta foreign minister Than Swe a platform to portray the regime as a benevolent peacemaker who was slandered by biased media, as the military-run Myawady newspaper published on June 22.

In a move that will confuse ASEAN chairman Indonesia and the regime’s domestic opponents, the text claimed attendees “expressed their willingness to avoid the ASEAN-minus formula,” a reference to the bloc’s policies to exclude the junta from high-level meetings. Representatives from China, India, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Cambodia also took part in the meeting, possibly the last of the departing ‘military’ government voted out by Thai voters.

Indonesia and Malaysia – some of ASEAN’s harshest critics of the junta – rejected the meeting, while Singapore warned it was premature to involve the junta at such a high level.

This controversial meeting is another blow to ASEAN’s already hesitant efforts to defuse the crisis. However, Bangkok continued to defend the divisive talks. “We are suffering more than others because Thailand has more than 3,000 kilometers of shared land border and a sea border,” outgoing Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters. The cooperation between the Thai and Myanmar army is well known.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken once again urged ASEAN to act harder and more unitedly against the Myanmar junta, neighboring countries continue to urge caution and rather point the finger at the West. As Indian Professor Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi Center for Policy Research: “While While they are wreaking havoc on Myanmar’s ordinary citizens, Western sanctions have left the ruling military elites relatively unscathed, giving the junta little incentive to loosen its political grip. The main beneficiary is China, which has been allowed to establish a foothold in a country that values it as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean and a major source of natural resources.”

Indeed, as Evan A. Laksmana, a senior research fellow at the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, predicted in Foreign Policy back in 2021: “The future of ASEAN will be decided in Burma”.

* Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411[IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: MIG – 29 of Myanmar Air Force. Source: Wikipedia

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