The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

While the United States is supporting pro-democracy activists and protestors in Myanmar, more needs to be done.

The United States first imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1997. Fast forward 25 years, in 2022, President Biden signed into law the BURMA Act of 2021.

Myanmar is listed as a “country of particular concern” under U.S. policy. The country’s infamous reputation is a result of its history of violating human rights and religious freedom. As Myanmar transitioned gradually to democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, such “concerns” began to see a new beginning. But in February 2021, the military imprisoned Suu Kyi, overthrew the elected government, and seized control of the country, reversing the hard-won progress. The BURMA Act of 2021 is an acknowledgment of the bravery of Myanmar’s people, who have been rebelling against the military’s repression, quitting their jobs, and taking the fight to the streets for nearly two years.

The United States has traditionally maintained a “democracy first” approach in its involvement with Myanmar, and the relatively new legislation provides the Biden administration with three prospects for advancing the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. First, the law permits the United States to provide assistance and communicate directly with anti-junta groups. Open lines of communication with pro-democracy groups is vital should they succeed in toppling the junta.

Under the law, $450 million will be provided in financial assistance to help with humanitarian needs, sustain the civil disobedience movement, protect political prisoners, support activists, media, and military defectors along with financial support to civil society groups who have been essential in keeping the pressure on the junta.

The law also mandates the Biden administration to impose sanctions on senior junta officials and any entity, commercial businesses, and individuals linked with the junta’s economic backing. This will place enormous pressure on the junta, which has repeatedly demonstrated its economic ineptitude in dealing with any financial crisis.

The legislation has also taken account of the Rohingya issue. The U.S. has to facilitate international justice mechanisms to hold the military accountable for its campaign against the Rohingya people. Humanitarian assistance has been ensured for Rohingya refugees even prior to the law. As of 2021, $205 million has been provided for the Rohingya.

The BURMA Act of 2021 is packed with optimism and assurances, but whether it will hold water or not is a discussion that will fuel itself in the coming years. However, while an earnest attempt, it does have its flaws.

Most sanction measures are discretionary, not mandatory, which is unfortunate at a moment when civilians are preparing for a spring push against the military. Even the highly anticipated sanctions against Myanmar’s state-owned oil and gas company, MOGE, haven’t been finalized. The fact that Chevron is partnering with MOGE will delay any sanctions given the strength of the energy giant’s lobby.

The law also posits providing “non-lethal” aid to the anti-junta movement. But when countries like China and Russia are supplying the junta with weapons, pro-democracy activists and protestors will be at a severe disadvantage. Although the U.S. has denounced China and Russia’s cooperation with Myanmar at the United Nations, in light of the current situation in Ukraine, such condemnation is unlikely to see Russia and China pull back their support. It’s also frustrating that in comparison with Ukraine, the aid to anti-junta groups in Myanmar pales in comparison.

The Biden administration needs a more coherent strategy for Myanmar if it really wants to help the people of Myanmar and be seen as a true friend.

Sadia Aktar Korobi is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at Dhaka University. Since 2019, Sadia has been a member of the Right to Peace Foundation.