Since the coup in February 2021, violence and unrest have overwhelmed the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma. In the past 11 months since the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) overthrew Myanmar’s elected democratic government, it has arrested civilians, activists, religious minorities, and journalists; killed over 1,000; halted the economy; and displaced an estimated 170,000. COVID-19 has decimated many communities, with the military blocking access to basic medical care and oxygen. The Tatmadaw has suppressed freedom of religion, both of Christian communities in Kachin, Karen, and Chin States and the Muslim Rohingya community. Multiple reports describe the burning and vandalizing of churches and the imprisonment of pastors. The military is also responsible for burning alive 11 unarmed anti-military guerilla fighters in early December.
Thus far, international action against the junta has included statements denouncing the power grab, small rounds of sanctions, and some critiques. But as the junta increases its atrocities, global efforts to restore the democratic party have rallied. The French Senate adopted a resolution to acknowledge the National Unity Government (NUG), the interim government that elected officials ousted by the junta formed. The European Union has also passed a resolution affirming support for the NUG. In a surprising show of power, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) even withdrew its invite for Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s chief, to its annual summit.
Now, at long last, a more decisive and powerful bill, the BURMA Act, has been introduced into the US Congress to address the crisis. Covering everything from sanctions and import prohibitions to humanitarian aid, the BURMA Act is one of the most comprehensive pieces of proposed legislation to address the coup. Congress, especially Republican senators who have been more reluctant to support the act, should pass the bill quickly to cripple the Tatmadaw and support local efforts for democracy in the region.
Provisions of the BURMA Act
The largest, most contested provision of the BURMA Act requires Congress to be apprised of the feasibility of cutting off revenue through sanctions to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), estimated to account for up to 70 percent of the Tatmadaw’s funding. According to an in-depth report, the US oil conglomerate Chevron is heavily involved with MOGE’s operations in a particular gas field, Yadana. The French company TotalEnergies SE runs the oil production at Yadana in conjunction with MOGE, Chevron, and a Thai company.
The estimated MOGE revenue from the Yadana field in 2021 alone is $536 million. In addition, the military government receives millions of tax dollars from the profits, netting at least $120 million in 2018. Given the huge amount of revenue generated in part by Chevron for the military, the US company is wholly complicit in profiting off of the dictatorship. Chevron is estimated to receive annual profits of $100-150 million from the Yadana field.
Given that Yadana gas is a significant source of power in the region, sanctions could prove difficult. But some, such as Senator Jeff Merkely (D-OR), have suggested requiring Chevron to seek other means of paying for the oil extracted from Yadana, such as into a trust, instead of directly to MOGE. Chevron spends millions annually on lobbying, including on Myanmar oil issues.
Further sanctions addressed in the act would ban importing precious and semi-precious stones from Myanmar into the US. Sitting on rich deposits, the country’s jade industry was estimated at $31 billion in 2015. While finding exact numbers about its ruby industry is hard, past estimates suggest that Myanmar supplied up to 90 percent of the world’s rubies. The Tatmadaw now has total control over the industry.
The BURMA Act also includes a call for the State Department to evaluate whether the Tatmadaw’s intense persecution of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar constitutes a genocide. Since 2017, attacks on Rohingya villages—including mass murder, rape, and razing of homes—drove an estimated 880,000 into refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Estimates vary, but approximately 6,700 were killed in one month in 2017. Some say up to 43,000 were or still are missing. Previous bills introduced into Congress that requested an evaluation into a genocide designation of the Rohingya crisis have lagged.
Living conditions in Rohingya refugee camps are extremely dire, with little to no access to education, healthcare, running water, or significant shelter. A fire tore through one refugee camp earlier this year, displacing about 45,000.
The act also asks for the release of and requires US advocacy for political prisoners like Kachin activists and journalists. Though the Tatmadaw recently released around 5,000 prisoners, many were immediately re-arrested. Most are held on false or fabricated charges, and reports indicate widespread, horrific torture.
A variety of provisions for humanitarian aid and support for democracy in Myanmar round out the act.
In 2021 alone, the US has already provided $205 million in humanitarian assistance, mainly to assist Rohingya refugees and those affected by violence in severely affected states.
The act would authorize up to an additional $220.5 million for general humanitarian aid for children, refugees, and those pursuing peace. Jan Jan of Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy (GM4MD), a grassroots activist organization in the US, says that the money is urgently needed to address this “full-blown crisis” perpetrated with impunity by the Myanmar military, which is subjecting citizens “to non-stop abductions, arbitrary arrests, mass imprisonment, and killings by the military.” The UN estimates that over 3 million need “life-saving” aid.
The act allocates up to an additional $50 million for the next five years in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement, activists, rights organizations, and media working toward democracy, reconciliation, free journalism, and inter-ethnic relations via safe houses, secure communication, training, expansion of broadcasting, and financial support of local civil society organizations.
Finally, the act requires the creation of a new State Department position, the special coordinator for Burmese democracy, to act as a liaison and point person for implementing the BURMA Act. The appointee would coordinate sanctions and arms embargos, place pressure on Russia and China against the military, engage the National Unity Government, and liaise with the United Nations regarding the Myanmar crises. The act also requires greater US pressure on the UN in general regarding Myanmar.
While for most Americans Myanmar is a distant nation, about 189,000 Burmese live in the US, with the diaspora rallying together to lobby for their friends and families still in Myanmar. Rights groups like GM4MD and US Advocacy Coalition for Myanmar (USACM) distribute information in English and Burmese on how to call Congress and request support for the BURMA Act. So far, they have been greatly successful, as the number of cosponsors for the Act continues to increase, despite lagging Republican support, which is most likely due to some drama between Senator Todd Young (R-IN) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).
Regardless, the US has access to methods of frustrating and complicating the junta’s actions. According to rights group Freedom for Burma, “the coup has conclusively shown the international community that the military junta will stop at nothing to secure their hold onto power and wealth, even if it means torturing, murdering, and displacing thousands of innocent people and their families. A swift and overwhelming response from the United States Congress is urgently needed, and the BURMA Act of 2021 would provide that response.”
“Burma is in an emergency and it’s calling for help,” says Maran. “The police and security forces aren’t showing up—they’re killing people instead. The international community, with the United States’ leadership, is truly key to responding to the current crisis.”
Maran emphasizes that “by weakening the military through tough, targeted sanctions plus accountability measures outlined within the BURMA Act, and providing much-needed humanitarian assistance, many lives still remaining within the country and at its borders can be saved from the consequences of the Myanmar military’s delusional madness.”