Western governments are continuing to tighten their positions on the Myanmar junta, with the European Union set to impose sanctions on leading members of the security forces, after the U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning the escalating use of violence against protesters.
European Union foreign ministers are today expected to approve sanctions against 11 Myanmar officials following the military’s seizure of power and deposition of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
One diplomat from the 27-nation bloc said that the 11 individuals – all military and police officers – would likely have EU assets frozen and be placed on a visa blacklist. This initial round of sanctions will reportedly not target businesses tied to the military, including the two large conglomerates that tie it to most sectors of the country’s economy, but diplomats have told the press that some of these are likely be targeted in the coming weeks.
In so doing, the EU is making good on a threat last month that it would target Myanmar’s military and its economic interests in response to its seizure of power on February 1.
The coup has tipped Myanmar into a phase of paralyzing crisis with no clear end in sight, as large swathes of society have announced their firm opposition to the coup. Since the coup, security forces have killed at least 250 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Another 2,665 have also been confirmed arrested, charged, or sentenced in relation to anti-coup dissidence.
The intensifying violence has been met with a global alarm, which includes increasing pressure on Western businesses to divest from the country, and growing criticism from foreign countries – even from Myanmar’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On Friday, envoys to Myanmar from several Western countries issued a statement in which they condemned the ongoing violence as “immoral and indefensible.” The statement particularly addressed recent bloodshed in the industrial Hlaingthayar district of Yangon on the weekend of March 13-14, during which at least 50 people were killed by security forces
“Internet blackouts and suppression of the media will not hide the military’s abhorrent actions,” the ambassadors said in the joint statement.
The same day, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation condemning the coup and the increasingly harsh tactics used to suppress the demonstrations against it. The resolution, which passed by a vote of 398 to 14, also condemned the detention of Myanmar’s civilian leaders and called for their immediate release, as well as the restoration of the elected NLD government.
Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged support for the measures, saying that the “we must make it clear that the United States is watching and that we support the restoration of democracy.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 14 representatives who voted against the resolution – all Republicans – include key supporters of former president Donald Trump, whose claims that he was robbed of the election by fraud closely echo the Myanmar’s military’s own pretext for launching the coup.)
It remains to be seen what impact this outside pressure will have on Myanmar’s junta. From one point of view, it doesn’t much matter: sanctions set and defend a standard of international behavior to which all nations are (theoretically) supposed to adhere, and send a message about the inviolability (again, theoretically) of this standard.
From another, increasing the cost on those leading Myanmar’s ill-considered coup will make an actual difference to the junta’s decisions, for instance in helping prod the generals to the negotiating table, at least in comparison to a situation in which they faced no international opprobrium at all.
But in Myanmar’s military, sanctioning governments face an institution known for being intensely insular, nationalistic, and consumed overwhelmingly in its own internal games of advancement and status. It is also a body with long experience of weathering international pressure.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the coming months will likely end up furnishing important evidence about the efficacy of economic sanctions as a tool of diplomacy.