Defections, Rather Than Sanctions, Are What Is Needed For Myanmar

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Defections, Rather Than Sanctions, Are What Is Needed For Myanmar

The current Western approach may be pushing tycoons and senior officials into the military’s arms. Better to entice them in the other direction.

Defections, Rather Than Sanctions, Are What Is Needed For Myanmar

State school students attend a ceremony marking Myanmar’s 75th anniversary of Independence Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

An article published last month in The Economist by Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, Russia’s jailed opposition leader, warrants some attention. He wrote thus:

Anyone placed on [a sanctions list] knows that the only guaranteed way off it is to die. As a result, people who have been placed under sanctions feel they have no option but to stay on board Mr Putin’s boat, even if it is sinking. Sanctions actually push people into Mr Putin’s arms, both figuratively (they feel that their political fates are now more closely linked than before) and in the most direct sense (those of them who have lived in the West are often forced to return to Russia, and their dependence on the Kremlin authorities grows).

That was obviously a portrait of the situation in Russia since Western governments and a few notable others, such as Singapore, imposed hefty sanctions on the country and hundreds of Russian officials after the invasion of Ukraine. But Volkov’s argument could be equally applied to officials within or associated with Myanmar’s military junta. And it begs the question: Instead of adding more and more people to sanctions lists, which the U.S. and European Union do every few months (Washington’s latest tranche arrived on March 24), shouldn’t foreign governments find better ways to convince the generals and bureaucrats in Myanmar to avoid becoming sanctioned by “resigning their job… or denouncing the war,” as Volkov suggests? Or, as Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, has intimated about Russia, certain officials should be helped to leave the country and break with the regime, and allowed to transfer some of their wealth to Ukraine as compensation. Wouldn’t it be a compelling proposition if the executives and officials were offered a way out of Myanmar, too, taking with them the junta’s account books?

It’s common knowledge that the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and various other anti-junta groups have spent a lot of money (which they really lack) paying for officials and their families to defect. By some accounts, $500,000 is the largest of such “rewards.” Additional money is on offer for defectors who leave with intelligence or military equipment. Last August, the NUG openly called for defectors to bring anti-aircraft weapons as the military increased its use of air attacks, the latest specter of which was seen last weekend with the murder of potentially 100 people in Sagaing Region.

Naturally, those defectors need to get out of the country, which relies on the support of foreigners. And, clearly, the NUG reckons it’s the next best thing those foreigners could do if they’re going to continue to refuse to arm or financially support the NUG. “We asked [foreign governments], if you can’t assist us with arms, please accept defectors because it’s also supporting the revolution in another way,” Zin Mar Aung, the NUG’s foreign minister, told The Irrawaddy newspaper last year. She went on: “Luckily this was accepted by Australia. And there are also some countries which are welcoming defectors, but not publicly.”

A NUG official told your columnist that they think hundreds, if not thousands, of more people would defect or desert their positions if they believed their safety would be guaranteed in a foreign country, chiefly one in the West. “We have a lot of defectors who are waiting for us to give the green light, to guarantee them resettlement abroad and financial support,” I was informed. The NUG asserted in January that nearly 3,000 soldiers and 7,000 police officers have defected since the coup. However, Voice of America reported the same month that the rate of defections is slowing, which a support organization put down to the tightening  of restrictions by the junta, especially on family members. One senses that it may also be down to a lack of money.

Here, Western governments could play a role. It’s obvious they have no motivation to get further involved in the conflict. Recognizing the NUG, a minimal act, is beyond the pale for most. But they could offer more money and security; America’s BURMA Act is purposefully oblique on how that funding can be used. But it does authorize the State Department and USAID to “provide support to civil society in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the surrounding region including by ensuring the safety of…. government defectors exercising their fundamental rights.” That includes by “supporting safe houses for those under threat of arbitrary arrest or detention” or by “assisting individuals forced to flee from Burma and take shelter in neighboring countries, including in ensuring protection assistance and non-refoulement.” And Western government could always justify the funding of defections as a non-lethal activity in more senses than one.

The U.K., U.S., Europeans, and Australia could make it known to senior junta ministers or soldiers or civil servants that the money and visas are there for them to get out of Myanmar along with their family. That defector will get a comfortable life outside of Myanmar for a few years. Sabotage before defection would be ideal. Getting them to publicly condemn the regime would be a PR boon.

None of this is particularly moral, but neither was it during the Second World War, when German soldiers and Nazi party members defected and were admitted by the Allies when Jews were barred from entry, as well as during the Cold War. It would be a policy that benefits potential murderers (or collaborators, at best) over the million-or-so Rohingya refugees eking out life in Bangladesh. Would most Britons or Germans or Americans support a policy? Probably not. But, like supporting defections, neither are sanctions supposed to be devices that reflect the ethics of the sanctioner, despite some Western politicians now thinking of them as principled ends in themselves (or, at their worst, necessary virtue signaling).

Voice of America has reported, for instance, that “some armed resistance groups… have offered cash rewards of 5 million kyats (about $2,400) to soldiers and police who defect with arms and ammunition.” By one account, around 100 defectors a month were contacting the resistance groups at the peak of abscondence in April 2022, but that number has since dwindled. It’s a back-of-an-envelope calculation, but around $250,000 might pay for 100 defections, it would seem. Or $25 million might pay for 10,000 defections. If the going rate is $500,000 for senior officials, you wouldn’t get loose change from $50 million for 100 defectors.

And why just focus on soldiers, although that’s the obvious response when the junta’s forces are slaughtering civilians and pinning down the resistance groups? But Zach Abuza has argued convincingly that “while the junta has taken significant battlefield losses, the rapidly imploding Myanmar economy is their real vulnerability – and must be the NUG’s priority.” It’s the civil servants, the central bank officials, the junta accountants et al that really need to be incentivized to defect. Given the military’s superior firepower, the depletion of the army’s ranks might offer less bang for the West’s buck than depleting the ranks of the civil service and the economic ministries.