When G-20 leaders meet on the resort island of Bali this week, Russia’s war in Ukraine will undoubtedly dominate the conversation. But U.S. President Joe Biden should also use the G-20 to address another conflict unfolding much closer to Bali, as the people of Myanmar valiantly resist an illegitimate junta that is unleashing a campaign of violent repression, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. To date, the United States has taken an equivocal approach to the crisis raging in Myanmar. This visit presents a perfect opportunity to make clear that the U.S. and its international allies support the Myanmar peoples’ struggle for democracy by announcing new financial measures aimed at pressuring the corrupt, criminal junta responsible for these atrocities.
Since the military launched its disastrous coup attempt in February 2021, more than 2,400 civilians have been killed by junta forces. Schools and children have not been exempt from the junta’s war on the people of Myanmar, as recently illustrated by the killing of 11 schoolchildren in a helicopter airstrike. More than 15,000 political activists have been arrested, including elected members of parliament, civil society activists, and journalists. One million people have been displaced internally so far, with humanitarian and economic impacts reverberating throughout the Asian region.
The junta’s corruption, violence, and calamitous policies have caused massive human suffering and economic chaos. Engagement by the United Nations and by the most influential regional institution, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has not led to any change in the junta’s behavior. On the contrary, the junta has taunted the international community by executing prominent Myanmar democracy activists, jailing an Australian economist and a former British ambassador to Myanmar, and boasting that increasingly closer ties to Russia and China will help it evade the impact of sanctions.
In the coming months, the junta will seek to cement its power through what are expected to be sham elections in mid-2023 designed to provide the junta with a veneer of legitimacy. As an unprecedented resistance movement has coalesced all across the country, it is time for the U.S. to replace its previously restrained approach with a concerted ratcheting up of targeted sanctions.
For months, there has been a growing chorus of calls by civil society groups, prominent activists, and members of Congress for the U.S. to impose sanctions on the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), known to be the junta’s single largest source of foreign currency earnings. The junta has adopted a coercive approach to securing its hold over the financial sector, including seeking every avenue for access to foreign exchange, which it requires to purchase items such as weapons and jet fuel for planes and helicopters that it needs to wage war on its people. The EU has already sanctioned MOGE, but for the sanctions to have a significant impact, given the dominance of the U.S. dollar, the U.S. needs to act as well.
While Washington might want to avoid targeting the energy company so as not to alienate Thailand, which uses Myanmar gas, this concern is outweighed by the need to demonstrate to the junta and its international supporters – particularly China and Russia – that the international community is serious about confronting the junta’s abuses. Other state-owned enterprises benefiting the junta, such as the Myanma Petrochemical Enterprise, should also be sanctioned.
In addition, the U.S. should use network sanctions to target businesses that financially benefit from the political and economic turmoil engendered by the crisis. Shwe Byain Phyu, a Myanmar conglomerate with longstanding links to the military, epitomizes this new group of beneficiaries. The company’s acquisition of a majority stake in the distressed telecommunications business of Norwegian firm Telenor, which recently beat a retreat from the crisis in Myanmar, was endorsed by the junta.
To increase the effectiveness of financial measures and present a united front, the U.S. needs to work more closely with its partners. Coordinating targeted network sanctions with the EU, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia will shut down more pathways to the international financial system for junta-linked money, further tightening the screws.
Apart from sanctions, the Biden administration should ask its allies to cut all remaining business ties with the junta and linked entities. For example, Japan, a Quad member, the G-7 chair in 2023, and an incoming non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has suspended the Y Complex mixed development project, which was taking place on land leased from the military and with funding from Japanese government entities. Those ties should not merely be suspended but ended.
The moment has come for the U.S. and its allies to take the gloves off, to support the massive popular resistance movement within Myanmar, and to help unravel the corrupt networks sustaining the junta. This will require commitment to hard-hitting actions and a long-term vision, investing in the organizations and individuals – especially those of Myanmar’s people –that will contribute meaningfully to democracy, sustainable peace, inclusive growth, and responsible business when the reign of terror finally comes to an end.