We welcome today’s introduction of the BURMA Act of 2021 in the US Congress. This bill signals that, over six months after Myanmar’s military took power in a coup, the US will maintain support for the country’s pro-democracy protest movement and those fleeing the military junta while pursuing justice for victims of recent and ongoing crimes and squeezing the military’s finances wherever possible.
The bill enhances US pressure on the military’s main sources of revenue by amplifying calls from hundreds of Myanmar civil society groups for the Biden administration to place sanctions on the country’s oil and gas industry. The legislation also puts in place a ban on jade and gemstone imports from Myanmar and authorizes ‘secondary’ sanctions that allow the US government to target companies that continue to support the military regime.
“It is past time for the Biden Administration to place sanctions on Myanmar’s state-owned gas company, which is the government’s largest source of foreign currency at over $1 billion annually and is now under the military’s control. Congress has forced the administration to look again at the necessity of these sanctions through this important legislation,” said Paul Donowitz, Natural Resource Governance and Myanmar Strategy Lead at Global Witness. “The US Treasury must add the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise to the Specially Designated Nationals list as soon as possible,” he added.
“We also welcome the legislation’s imposition of a ban on jade and gemstone imports. Our recent report exposed how Myanmar’s generals have further entrenched their control of the multi-billion-dollar jade industry, which has become their own personal slush fund. It would be nearly impossible to purchase jade or gems in Myanmar without contributing to the military’s revenues or helping to fund conflict in the country,” added Donowitz.
Crucially, the bill also makes good on promises of US support for Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance movement. It authorizes support for the civil society groups and independent media that desperately need resources to be able to continue reporting on the military’s brutality and repression to the people of Myanmar and to the world. It also provides further support for humanitarian aid, which is ever more urgent as the military’s actions have displaced nearly 200,000 people from their homes and contributed to a surge in COVID-19 cases spreading rapidly across the country, threatening neighboring public health systems.
“The coup has completely destroyed the government’s ability to respond to COVID-19, turning a public health crisis into a humanitarian disaster. Moreover, the Tatmadaw’s blocking of food aid for people displaced by military violence and conflict is yet another in its long list of crimes,” said Donowitz. “Now the US must work to ensure the financial support this bill authorizes makes its way to the people of Myanmar rather than being stolen by the Tatmadaw.”
The BURMA Act also creates a coordinator position within the State Department dedicated to identifying ways that US sanctions support Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and working with regional stakeholders and allies in the ongoing response to the coup. These positions are a vital demonstration of the US commitment to forging multilateral responses to the situation in Myanmar and could be a key locus of international policy coordination.
“It is imperative that the US work with the international community, and especially with like-minded partners, to effectuate sanctions and develop policy responses in a fast-moving situation,” concluded Donowitz.
The BURMA Act of 2021 sets the stage for the next phase of the US response to Myanmar’s coup. The US must remain steadfast in its support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement on all fronts. It must not repeat its mistakes from the 1990s and 2000s, when Myanmar’s gas industry was exempted from sanctions and so provided a vital lifeline to the previous junta, and should place sanctions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.
In international forums, the US must continue to oppose recognition of the military regime and push for engagement with the anti-coup National Unity Government. The US should also continue to push for a United Nations-mandated arms embargo rather than the recent non-binding resolution that merely calls on countries to “prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”We welcome the BURMA Act and urge Congress to move quickly to pass this important piece of legislation.