Today marks the second anniversary of the beginning of a brutal military coup in Myanmar. After a crushing electoral defeat in 2020, the Myanmar military unleashed unthinkable atrocities on its people, murdered protestors, carried out airstrikes on civilians, and burned villages. To date, nearly 3,000 people have died, and over 13,000 have been detained for raising their voices in protest. The military’s violence has triggered a nationwide uprising as people refuse to return to life under a dictatorship. So far, the international community’s response has failed to match that of its efforts in Ukraine or of the Myanmar people. As the coup enters its third year, I ask: Do you remember Myanmar?
I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of the Myanmar military and would not wish those experiences on anyone. I was born in what was then known as Burma in the 1970s and experienced many of the military’s abuses first-hand as a political prisoner. Even as a child growing up in Burma, I saw people suffer under the military’s harsh rule. By the late 1980s, the people of Burma, particularly young people like me, had had enough of military control. We were tired of living in fear, of the restrictions on our personal freedom. As it is doing now, the military dragged us into an economic abyss, and we couldn’t imagine our futures under such an oppressive regime. We took to the streets to demand democracy.
That moment is often referred to as 8.8.88, or the People Power Uprising. It’s a historic one for our people. Thousands came to speak out against life under the military regime and to demand that their human rights be respected. Activists–including myself and my friends–were attacked, tortured, and brutalized for speaking truth to power.
I see similarities between that movement and the mass uprisings taking place in Myanmar today. Both were sparked by the military’s abuse. But what’s different is the scope of opposition to the junta. Since 2021, when the military attempted to seize power in Myanmar, practically every sector of Myanmar society has risen to denounce the violence. In 1988, it was mostly young people and their allies who came out in protest. Today, people are united across ages, ethnicities, regions, and economic levels in opposition to the junta.
While the pro-democracy movement is strong within Myanmar, the international community has not responded to the crisis as it did in Ukraine. In contrast to their action there, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have been slow to sanction Myanmar’s fossil fuel sector, which the junta can use as a financial lifeline to buy weapons and airplanes to wage civil war on the people. Fossil fuel companies are funding and supporting the military just as they did in the 2000s.
Policymakers from the U.S., EU, and U.K. have spoken of the need to sanction key actors within Myanmar and sectors of its economy, but research we released this week with our friends at Global Witness reveals that Western governments have missed significant opportunities to implement sanctions. While they tout the importance of close coordination, the report finds that, in fact, two-thirds of the 165 distinct sanctions implemented since the coup have been imposed unilaterally by the U.S., U.K., or EU. Only 22 (13 percent) of targets have been sanctioned by all three.
Until the international community intervenes with meaningful sanctions, communities in Myanmar will continue to suffer human rights abuses. The people of Myanmar are fighting a military with the financial backing of the fossil fuel industry, including Chevron and the U.S. oil field services sector. Even as the west weans itself off of Russian gas to stop the atrocities in Ukraine, the U.S. government has repeated fossil fuel industry disinformation about the need to keep Myanmar gas flowing to Thailand.
The Myanmar military has announced that it will hold “elections” in August of this year, even though many members of the previously elected government are in prison, in hiding, or have been assassinated by the junta. These elections have no chance of being free and fair, but that doesn’t mean the military won’t try to use the results to gain legitimacy.
It’s far past time that the U.S., along with its allies in Europe, increase pressure on the military and work in coordination with Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. To truly cut off the military’s power, the Biden administration must impose sanctions on the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.
The fossil fuel industry has a long history of undermining human rights, trashing the planet while spreading disinformation, and profiting from violence and global strife. Extracting gas from Myanmar’s offshore reserves and then letting the junta misappropriate the profits only perpetuates this conflict, threatening to destabilize the entire region. The more we allow companies like Chevron to profit from abuses like the ones we see in Myanmar, the more emboldened they will be to engage in war profiteering elsewhere, as they are currently doing in Ukraine.
This week, activists and Burmese people worldwide are taking time to remember Myanmar. But one question remains––why isn’t the U.S. government?