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Why Congress Must Pass the BURMA Act

One year since the military took power in Myanmar, the United States needs to increase pressure on its brutal regime.

By , the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Shwedagon Pagoda and a street in Yangon, Myanmar.
Shwedagon Pagoda and a street in Yangon, Myanmar.
Shwedagon Pagoda is seen from a distance down an empty street in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 1. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Last year, the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and the march of authoritarianism around the world showed that global democracy faces a great recession; freedom and human rights are under attack. The task for 2022 and beyond is clear: to buttress the ramparts of democracy at home and renew the democratic spirit abroad.

In the past year, the situation in Myanmar has served as a stark reminder of this challenge. On Feb. 1, 2021, the country’s military executed an illegitimate and illegal coup, deposing elected members of the civilian government. The military’s actions instantly reversed the hard-fought freedoms won since 2011, when Myanmar began a transition to democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The junta ended the year with the massacre of 35 innocent civilians, including humanitarian aid workers and children.

The military regime has killed more than 1,500 people in the past year, including around 100 children, and illegally detained more than 10,700 people. Its violence toward its own citizens has displaced roughly 406,000 people within the country, bringing the estimated total of internally displaced persons to 776,000 and of refugees and asylum-seekers in neighboring countries to more than 1 million. The staggering human toll of the coup and subsequent conflict continues to grow.

Last year, the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and the march of authoritarianism around the world showed that global democracy faces a great recession; freedom and human rights are under attack. The task for 2022 and beyond is clear: to buttress the ramparts of democracy at home and renew the democratic spirit abroad.

In the past year, the situation in Myanmar has served as a stark reminder of this challenge. On Feb. 1, 2021, the country’s military executed an illegitimate and illegal coup, deposing elected members of the civilian government. The military’s actions instantly reversed the hard-fought freedoms won since 2011, when Myanmar began a transition to democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The junta ended the year with the massacre of 35 innocent civilians, including humanitarian aid workers and children.

The military regime has killed more than 1,500 people in the past year, including around 100 children, and illegally detained more than 10,700 people. Its violence toward its own citizens has displaced roughly 406,000 people within the country, bringing the estimated total of internally displaced persons to 776,000 and of refugees and asylum-seekers in neighboring countries to more than 1 million. The staggering human toll of the coup and subsequent conflict continues to grow.

Having previously lived under the yoke of military rule and authoritarianism for decades, the people of Myanmar responded to the coup with courage, creativity, and resistance. Pro-democracy activists flooded the streets, formed a shadow government, and carried out a massive civil disobedience movement to shut down the machinery of the state. But when they looked to the international community for support, far too often they received toothless statements, resolutions, and condemnations.

The tragedy underway in Myanmar epitomizes the battle between democracy and authoritarianism. After securing critical political reforms and a pathway to democracy, the people of Myanmar once again find themselves under a regime that wantonly commits human rights atrocities against its own citizens. If the international community cannot marshal the collective will to act in such a black-and-white scenario, what hope does the fight to safeguard democracy have anywhere else?

The international community has so far deferred to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to address the crisis. Unfortunately, the organization’s divisions and consensus-based model make an ASEAN-only approach insufficient. ASEAN issued a five-point consensus on Myanmar last April and appointed a special envoy to tackle the crisis—welcome developments that have borne no fruit. The international community cannot afford to let the junta win through inertia and inaction; it must supplement ASEAN’s efforts with other initiatives.

Any acceptable end to the crisis in Myanmar will require isolating the military diplomatically and politically to force it to the negotiating table. However, in doing so the international community will need to find ways to set up humanitarian corridors and safe zones. It must also signal to the National Unity Government—the shadow government that includes some lawmakers elected in 2020—and to Myanmar’s ethnic groups that national reconciliation is critical for their struggle for democracy to succeed. If the junta doesn’t cooperate, the United States should expand targeted sanctions, cutting it off from critical sources of revenue, and push like-minded partners for an arms embargo, a no-fly zone, and a ban on the sale of aviation fuel.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration deserves credit for its early response to the coup in Myanmar, which included sanctions against senior military leaders, export controls, and diplomatic outreach. Nevertheless, a year into a worsening crisis, as the military digs its heels in and hopes the international community’s attention will be fleeting, the United States must bring greater pressure to bear. The administration needs to expand targeted sanctions and work with allies and partners to cut off the flow of foreign currency to Myanmar’s military regime.

Meanwhile, Congress needs to do its part as well: It is vital to pass my bipartisan bill, the BURMA Act of 2021. The measure holds the perpetrators of the coup and ensuing atrocities accountable through targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military, the State Administration Council, and affiliated entities and conglomerates. It also authorizes sanctions on the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a critical revenue stream that finances the junta’s violence. Additional sanctions will signal to Myanmar’s military regime that further attacks and human rights atrocities will not go unanswered by the international community.

Furthermore, Congress must not wait to provide lifesaving assistance to the people of Myanmar. As the junta’s violence has escalated, civilians have faced dire conditions compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and a collapsing financial system. Since the coup, 32,000 people have fled from Myanmar to neighboring countries. The BURMA Act would authorize $220,500,000 in humanitarian aid in 2022 to support cross-border assistance for refugees in Bangladesh, Thailand, and the region through civil society and international organizations.

It is also important to assist the democratic forces fighting for survival in Myanmar. Therefore, the BURMA Act would authorize $50,000,000 for each of the next five years to support civil society and independent media in the country, including providing secure communication channels, political prisoner support, and assistance with non-refoulement so no refugees are forced to return to Myanmar to face persecution and harm. The United States should help lay a foundation for accountability and signal that national reconciliation and human rights must be priorities for the pro-democracy movement too. The BURMA Act would call on the U.S. State Department to make a genocide determination regarding the violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority and authorizes support for the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms to prosecute those who have committed past atrocities.

Finally, there is nothing the United States cannot accomplish while working in lockstep with like-minded partners and allies. Marshalling a unified approach requires dedicated personnel working tirelessly to coordinate with foreign governments and implement a united approach to the Myanmar crisis. To accomplish this, the BURMA Act would authorize a new position at the State Department to respond to the crisis and apply sustained pressure on the military regime to reverse its violent course. The bill calls on the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to move the body toward more decisive action. We should use our voice and vote at the U.N. to call out the military regime, as well as countries such as Russia and China that are actively supporting it or shielding it from punitive action.

I am optimistic the House will soon pass the BURMA Act to apply economic pressure, provide humanitarian support, and redouble diplomatic efforts against the military junta. I hope the Senate will do the same and move this critical legislation to the president’s desk to be signed into law.

My dear friend, the late Rep. John Lewis, once said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” On the somber occasion of the anniversary of Myanmar’s coup, Congress has a choice to act. One year and 1,400 lives later, time is up for symbolic gestures. The world is watching, and the people of Myanmar demand action. The U.S. Congress, the Biden administration, and the international community must deliver.

Gregory W. Meeks represents New York’s 5th District in the U.S. Congress. He is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee. First elected to Congress in 1998, Meeks is a multilateralist with decades of experience in foreign policy.

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