Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that would intensify U.S. pressure on the military junta that has sought to control Burma (Myanmar) since February of last year. This move is an essential first step that must now be matched by action in the Senate and the Biden administration. As the world focuses its attention on Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, we must remember that the administration recently confirmed that the Burmese military has already perpetrated genocide. As in Russia, the Burma junta’s violence is fueled by gas revenues. The junta has seized the country’s gas revenues to buy arms and military support from Russia and other countries. Cutting off access to these funds is critical for ending the junta’s reign of terror and restarting the democratic transition.
In 1988, student activists in Burma rose up against the military’s abuses. Many were killed, detained, tortured, and expelled from the country. In 2015, nearly thirty years later, there was hope that things had begun to change with the advent of a partially civilian government. Unfortunately, history has repeated itself. Since launching a coup last year, the Burmese military junta has killed over 16,000 people and detained 12,000 more. The junta has stifled freedom of expression, jailed journalists, and weaponized COVID-19 by denying health care to communities that oppose the coup. These actions have wiped out years of progress toward a more democratic and inclusive Burmese society — progress that was supported by millions of dollars of U.S. investment in programs to promote democracy and strengthen civil society.
Killing with gas
Gas revenues account for more than half of the junta’s foreign currency. These revenues — estimated at over $1 billion since the coup began — allow the junta to purchase weapons, jet fuel, and surveillance equipment to cement the military’s grip on power. In January, under intense international pressure, oil companies Chevron and Total announced plans to withdraw from the country. This was a positive development, but the companies ignored requests from inside Myanmar to divert revenues away from control by the junta and are choosing to exit in a way that enables the junta to maintain or even increase its access to a steady stream of gas revenues.
In February, the European Union announced sanctions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the state-owned entity that collects gas revenues for the government and that was seized by the junta early in the coup. These sanctions were a critical step to ramp up pressure on the junta. The Biden administration should have taken such action long ago but has not, for reasons not publicly explained.
Russia’s military ties to the Burma junta run deep. With Putin’s support, Russian arms dealers have sold hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons to the Burmese military, including MiG-29 and Yak-130 fighter jets and Hind Mi-35 helicopter gunships, which the military is using to bomb civilians. Burmese military officers have also received training in Russia. Unsurprisingly, the junta has enthusiastically endorsed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it “the right thing to do.”
Biden’s best bet for Burma
The Biden administration could help restore democracy in Burma by undercutting the Burmese junta – one of Putin’s few remaining international backers. Doing so would strengthen the hand of civil society within Burma that is bravely resisting the junta and fighting for democracy and ensure that U.S. companies stop funding a genocidal military. The administration should listen to calls from Myanmar’s lawmakers and civil society and immediately cut off gas revenues by implementing sanctions on MOGE, as it has on other Burmese state enterprises, or taking other actions to cut off the junta’s access to gas revenues. Burmese citizens see little or no benefit from funds stashed in offshore accounts. Cutting off gas revenues would starve the junta of funds and prevent it from buying more weapons from Russia. This critical action would uphold human rights in Myanmar and save countless lives.
Keith Slack is EarthRights’ Director of Strategy and Campaigns