Myanmar: The Case Against Economic Sanctions | Jack Fulton

Myanmar promised to be a success story for democracy. The political movement headed by Aung San Suu Kyi offered real hope to the citizenry that the country might dispose of the military government and transition toward a democracy. The military’s enactments loosening laws regarding political debate were seen as early victories for the progressive opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD). The breakthrough moment came in 2015, when the NLD won a “landslide election victory,” receiving 57% of votes and 77% of contestable seats in Myanmar’s Assembly of the Union. While the constitution meant that the military remained an overwhelmingly influential actor in the country’s politics (25% of the seats of parliament are assigned to the military and changes to the constitution requires the vote of over 75% of parliament), the NLD administration represented the first civilian government in Myanmar for over 50 years. With this, Myanmar began to form trade and diplomatic links with Western countries; had it not been for the military’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims – and the subsequent economic sanctions – Myanmar may have sustained lasting and valuable links with developed nations. Regardless, Myanmar had progressed considerably in as little time as ten years. The so-called “dawn arrests” of 1st February, abruptly ended this hopeful transition toward democracy.

Early morning on the 1st February, Tatmadaw forces, led by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, forcibly seized power, detaining many democratically elected political figures including Mrs Suu Kyi and Myanmar president, Win Myint. On gaining power, the military government imposed a nation-wide curfew, shut down telephone lines and announced a one-year state of emergency; after which, the country would go to an election. Even a cursory examination of the situation will lead one to agree with the U.S. State Department that the detention of Mrs Suu Kyi “constitutes a coup.” Indeed, the last time the Myanmar military overthrew a democratically elected government and promised an election the following year, the military refused to recognise the resulting administration and “did not hold another election for 20 years.” While Tatmadaw forces claim to be acting in line with the constitution – in response to unsubstantiated claims of a fraudulent voter system, owing to biased voter officials – the coup is, undoubtedly, an example of an autocratic military consolidating its grip on the political office of an independent nation.

Hence, the international community has condemned the coup. Foreign ministers from the G7 released a joint statement calling for the “immediate end [to] the state of emergency” and the restoring of “power to the democratically-elected government.” More robust, President Biden, in line with his pledge to ‘marshal’ the world’s democracies against autocratic regimes, has suggested that the United States will impose unilateral economic sanctions against Myanmar. If the military-backed government stay in office, a likely outcome is that nations like the United Kingdom and Japan will join in on imposing economic sanctions. This would be an error.

It would be an error for two main reasons. First, sanctions on Myanmar will only have a minimal effect on the military government. Sanctions of this kind often effect, not the political class, but the working class. In the words of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, “ordinary people, not governments are the main victims of economic sanctions.” This has been true of previous autocratic states, and it is likely to be true of Myanmar. In the case of Venezuela, the United States imposed sanctions on Venezuela, in an attempt to pressure the Maduro administration out of office. These sanctions caused the production of oil, Venezuela’s largest export, to fall by 60%, Nicolás Maduro remains the president of Venezuela while, it is estimated, “tens of thousands” have died as a consequence of these sanctions. Take the case of Iraq, even stringent, comprehensive and enduring sanctions failed to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. While the military government of Myanmar is autocratic and illegitimate, sanctions will not be effective in forcing them out of office.

Second, sanctions against Myanmar will serve to increase the economic influence of China. Unilateral sanctions will economically isolate Myanmar, the military government will likely turn to China, who has historically supported the Myanmar economy following military coups. Beijing has already prepared the groundwork for this closer partnership responding to the coup in a very reserved manner. ‘Xinhua’, for example, a Beijing-controlled media outlet, said of the coup that the “Myanmar military [had] announced a major cabinet reshuffle.” What is more, Beijing stands to gain from a closer partnership with Myanmar, offering key geopolitical advantages: Myanmar offers a “strategic gateway” to the Indian Ocean, and a closer partnership would allow Xi Jinping to extend the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor to Khaukphyu – a benefit that would mean that Beijing can “quickly bring oil and gas [..] into the country overland.” Plainly, by closing off Myanmar from the West, an imposition of sanctions will indirectly benefit Beijing, thus increasing the economic influence of China.

Not only would the imposition of sanctions be ineffective in its stated aim, but in being ineffective, it would fatally compromise Myanmar’s transition toward democracy while consolidating Beijing’s influence in Southeast Asia. To open Myanmar to the Western world and encourage a purposeful shift toward democracy, the military government must reinstate the National League for Democracy, imposing sanctions is not the way to go about it.

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