Sanctions Won’t Undo Myanmar’s Coup

But the military junta’s crackdowns and isolation just might.

By , an intern at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Burmese protesters burn a portrait of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Burmese protesters burn a portrait of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Burmese protesters burn a portrait of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in front of the United Nations headquarters for Southeast Asia in Bangkok on Feb. 3, 2021. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

The United States has unveiled new sanctions against Myanmar’s military junta, almost one year after a military coup erased the progress of the country’s fragile transition to democracy and sparked massive protests against the power grab.

The sanctions, targeting seven individuals and two entities connected to Myanmar’s military, is the latest in a series of moves by the United States and its allies to ramp up economic and diplomatic pressure on the military junta to stymie its efforts to consolidate power and gain international recognition. But efforts to roll back the junta’s power grab and reinstitute a democratic transition from the outside have so far failed, showcasing the limits of U.S. and international sanctions even as the junta itself struggles to retain power in the face of widespread civilian protests and a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

To outsiders, Myanmar is a textbook case of democracy backsliding in a year that saw multiple military coups, from Southeast Asia to West Africa, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s vow to make democracy—and the democratic retreat worldwide—a top foreign-policy priority.

The United States has unveiled new sanctions against Myanmar’s military junta, almost one year after a military coup erased the progress of the country’s fragile transition to democracy and sparked massive protests against the power grab.

The sanctions, targeting seven individuals and two entities connected to Myanmar’s military, is the latest in a series of moves by the United States and its allies to ramp up economic and diplomatic pressure on the military junta to stymie its efforts to consolidate power and gain international recognition. But efforts to roll back the junta’s power grab and reinstitute a democratic transition from the outside have so far failed, showcasing the limits of U.S. and international sanctions even as the junta itself struggles to retain power in the face of widespread civilian protests and a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

To outsiders, Myanmar is a textbook case of democracy backsliding in a year that saw multiple military coups, from Southeast Asia to West Africa, despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s vow to make democracy—and the democratic retreat worldwide—a top foreign-policy priority.

“There’s not a lot of tools for this kind of thing; there’s no silver bullet for a problem like what happened in [Myanmar],” said Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016. “What the Biden administration is trying to do is shut off the money, access to arms, shut off access for the elites to the international system, and deny the junta international recognition.”

The new sanctions, coordinated with U.S. allies Britain and Canada, target the military junta’s attorney general, Supreme Court chief justice, and chairman of the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission. The U.S. Treasury Department said all three officials are involved in the targeting and detention of political opponents to the military, including former Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the former ruling National League for Democracy party, which won Myanmar’s November 2020 election.

The sanctions also target a Myanmar military directorate responsible for procuring military hardware overseas, a logistics company controlled by the military, and an alleged arms dealer and his two sons. The sanctions are aimed at squeezing the ruling military’s economic lifelines abroad while the United States and its regional allies push to block the junta from gaining international legitimacy at the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and other multilateral organizations.

On Feb. 1, 2021, the military junta seized power in a coup that brought an abrupt end to Myanmar’s 10-year transition to a civilian government. The power grab set off a wave of protests that spiraled into armed conflict as the military cracked down on pro-democracy protesters. One year later, around 1,500 civilians have been killed, Myanmar’s economy is in shreds, and half the population—among those who haven’t fled—lives in extreme poverty.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Myanmar ballooned from 1 million before the coup to more than 14 million afterward, said Daniel Sullivan, deputy director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East at Refugees International, in a phone briefing with reporters alongside other human rights activists.

All the while, pro-democracy protests in the country have continued to surge, and the military junta—known as the Tatmadaw—is clinging to power with virtually no popular support or international legitimacy. The violent crackdown on protesters has pushed some opposition groups to armed resistance, and top U.N. officials have warned that unrest has spiraled into full-fledged civil war.

“The reign of terror imposed by the regime has pushed more people to take up arms against the military as a last resort,” said Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy executive director at Chin Human Rights Organization, a nonprofit group advocating for the rights of ethnic Chin and other minority groups in Myanmar. As the resistance movement has grown, Za Uk said, “the military has retaliated against the entire civilian population.”

“As many as up to 20 percent of the population of Chin State has now become displaced in a matter of months since the coup. We have at least 30,000 refugees in Mizoram state of India and close to 50,000 people internally displaced within Chin State itself,” Za Uk added, referring to the region of western Myanmar bordering Bangladesh and India.

“In the past, the military might have enjoyed a certain reputation of keeping the country together or being the force who has brought independence or who prevented the breakup of a nation,” said Marco Bünte, an expert on Myanmar’s protracted democratic transition and an editor of the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.

Now, there’s a generation of people who’ve experienced freedom for half of their lives, and many got to vote for the first time in the years right before the coup, Bünte said. “They see that the military is treating their own people like enemies.”

The Tatmadaw has no political future in a democratic Myanmar, where it is despised by the public, said Tun Myint, who was a student activist in Myanmar during the country’s first large-scale democracy protests in 1988 and is now an associate professor at Carleton College. The military junta “occupies the worst form of social status in Myanmar.”

Myint and many other pro-democracy activists have called for a global arms embargo against the Myanmar military, whose arsenal is the biggest instrument keeping it in power—and also arguably its greatest vulnerability.

“It’s like they are a foreign military occupied power,” said Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Surrounded by millions of people who are actively fighting against it, the junta has reacted as an occupying power would: by bombing villages, arresting dissenters, and churning out propaganda. “What they’re doing is not sustainable,” Andrews added.

As the junta struggles to quell protests within its borders, it is hemorrhaging what little international support it may have initially had abroad. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta, was left out of an ASEAN leaders meeting last fall, thousands of rank-and-file soldiers have defected, and the international community has refused to ease sanctions or diplomatic pressure on the junta. In September 2021, the United States and China reached a deal to block the junta’s representative from taking Myanmar’s seat at the United Nations, a rare moment of cooperation between the two rival superpowers that showcased just how isolated the junta was on the international stage.

Within ASEAN, some countries have pushed to block Myanmar’s junta from joining its meetings unless it agrees to proposed peace talks with the country’s political opposition. Malaysia and Indonesia have also called on the junta to end its crackdown on protests and pushed back on Cambodia’s efforts to engage with the junta.

“They recognize this is the potential for a failed state at the crossroads of Asia, and the junta doesn’t seem to care,” Mitchell said of other countries in the region. “That has a huge impact on the region, on the flow of refugees, the humanitarian crisis, and the ability to address things like health issues and drugs.”

“The junta turned a situation that was fairly stable and clear cut in the country into a complete basket case.”

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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