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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Defusing Myanmar Requires More Than Western Sanctions

Bloomberg
Clara Ferreira Marques
1 April 2021,

The junta’s violence has killed hundreds of protesters and put insurgent groups on a war footing. Time is running out to avert a cataclysm.

Protesters prepare Molotov cocktails.Source: Getty Images


Myanmar has long been a textbook example of sanctions failure. Years of isolation battered the population but didn’t loosen the grip of the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known. When they ceded ground a decade ago, they did so on their own terms — and even that, as February’s coup proved, was all too easily reversed.

Today, Southeast Asia’s poorest nation is again proving an example of the limits of outsiders’ ability to influence autocratic leaders willing to shoulder a substantial economic burden — or impose it on their own people — and remain indifferent to international ignominy. The army held a dinner and drone display last weekend, on the same day soldiers killed dozens of civilians and burned one man alive.

That’s no excuse for inaction in a situation where brutality against civilians has dramatically escalated and restive borderlands are smoldering, with ethnic armed groups being drawn back into conflict after coming out against the junta. So far, more than 500 people, including children as young as five, have been killed in the military’s effort to impose control. Many were gunned down with high-velocity weapons suited only for the battlefield. Some were murdered in their homes. It’s a human catastrophe that risks developing into a refugee crisis, a civil war and a murky proxy fight that drags in others, all at once — a combination no one can afford.

It should, though, prompt a realistic assessment of what is achievable, what will be necessary to rein in the worst excesses and, eventually, to pave the way for a compromise and a pathway toward democratic transition. All at a time when positions are hardening. Faced with a crisis that could spill over, Southeast Asia has a role to play by imposing its own travel and other restrictions on the elite, as does China, eager to restore stability as quickly as possible. For the West, measures like direct support for the population, say with humanitarian assistance and by preserving access to the internet, combined with efforts to woo younger officers and split the elite, may get better results than just condemnation.

It’s creditable that curbs have been imposed: The U.S. sanctioned officers involved in the coup and units that have repressed demonstrations. The measures target junta-controlled ministries and conglomerates, among them Myanmar Economic Corp. and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., the military’s two largest business entities. Europe has stepped up with travel bans and asset freezes.

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