Myanmar resistance leaders and international human rights groups are welcoming a new round of U.S. sanctions aimed at that country’s oil and gas sector, a major source of revenue for the ruling junta that seized power in February 2021.
Additional sanctions announced simultaneously by the United States, Britain and Canada are hailed as evidence of a coordinated international response to the brutal rule of the junta, which is blamed for almost 4,000 civilian deaths.
“This is an announcement that our people have been waiting for,” said Moe Zaw Oo, deputy foreign minister of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, in an interview with VOA. “These actions will have a large effect on the junta and their ability to receive income from the oil and gas industry.”
Oo said that the participation of Britain and Canada in additional sanctions will “make such actions more effective, so we whole-heartedly support them.”
The new U.S. sanctions, which take effect on December 15, prohibit U.S. financial institutions from offering services to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, or MOGE.
The National Unity Government has long called for tougher sanctions against the state-run MOGE, which, according to the U.S. Treasury, “remains the largest single source of foreign revenue for Burma’s military regime, providing hundreds of millions of dollars each year.”
“This sanctions action against MOGE seeks to degrade the regime’s ability to purchase weapons to carry out atrocities against the people of Burma,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a press release on October 31.
Mike Haack, advocacy coordinator at the U.S.-based Myanmar Policy Institute, told VOA the new sanctions appear to have been calibrated to inflict maximum pain on the junta without seriously harming neighboring Thailand, which relies heavily on petrochemicals from Myanmar for its energy needs.
“The idea behind this is to deny the regime access to dollars, which are much better for buying weapons than other currencies, so it will effectively deny them access to millions,” Haack said this week via Zoom.
He said the sanctions would still allow MOGE to sell its products in another currency, such as the Thai baht — a process that would be “logistically more difficult” for the junta but would avoid severe harm to the Thai economy.
“The U.S. definitely did this with consideration of Thai energy security, and I think that is central to the decision to have not made them more comprehensive with secondary sanctions,” he said.
Coordinated actions by Western partners
Along with the U.S. actions on MOGE, Britain and Canada this week announced new sanctions on individuals and entities supporting the junta.
“Today’s action, taken in coordination with Canada and the United Kingdom, maintains our collective pressure on Burma’s military and denies the regime access to arms and supplies necessary to commit its violent acts,” said Brian E. Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in a press release.
A U.K. government statement Monday said: “The U.K., U.S. and Canada are today announcing further sanctions on arms dealers and financiers of the Myanmar military responsible for the repression of the civilian population in Myanmar.”
It said the sanctions package “comes as part of the U.K.’s concerted efforts with international partners to restrict the sale and transfer of arms and finance in response to ongoing and worsening aerial attacks, including against civilians in Myanmar.”
A Canadian government statement outlined sanctions on “39 individuals and 22 entities” related to the Myanmar junta “as part of a broader strategy seeking to exert coordinated, sequenced and targeted pressure on the Myanmar military regime while mitigating adverse impacts on civilians.”
As of July 31, at least 3,857 civilians had been killed by the military as a result of political strife, and nearly 1.6 million people had fled their homes because of violence, according to the annual report of the U.N. High Commissioner in September.
Mixed reactions from advocacy groups
While the latest sanctions have been generally well received, some human rights advocates wish they had gone further.
“While these new sanctions are welcome, a handful of targets seven months after the last U.K. sanctions is too little and too slow,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, in a statement to VOA.
“It’s disappointing that the U.K. decided not to join the USA in the sanctions on MOGE or the sanctions on state-owned banks,” he said.
Burma Campaign UK has been a longtime advocate for sanctions against supporters of Myanmar military regimes past and present. They recently updated an existing “Boycott List,” naming products and companies that provide material support to the junta.
A U.S.-based group, the Campaign for a New Myanmar, questioned the American decision not to impose secondary sanctions that would have restricted MOGE’s ability to do business in other currencies. The group has been pushing the international community to block the flow of money to MOGE since the military takeover of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February 2021.
“It’s a step forward by the U.S. Administration that will help impede the flow of oil and gas money to the junta. But it falls short of full sanctions on MOGE,” said Simon Billenness, director of the group, in a written statement to VOA.
But Haack of the Myanmar Policy Institute said his and other human rights advocacy groups believe the limited nature of the measure will “have a big effect on the regime” in Naypyitaw without unduly harming the general population.”
“We don’t want anything that’s going to hurt the people, but we do want things that will affect the regime’s ability to wage war. So, this is something we support, this is something a lot of human rights organizations have been calling for,” he said.
The simultaneous announcement of sanctions by three countries was welcomed by U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, who, in a recent report, called for more coordinated sanctions to prevent arms dealers from bypassing restrictions.
“The coordination of these announcements is an important signal that governments that support human rights and the people of Myanmar are prepared to link their actions into a coherent and powerful whole,” Andrews said.
“These actions signal to the people of Myanmar that they have not been forgotten,” he said, “but there is much more that the international community can and must do.”