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The US Can Put Sanctions on Russian Gas to Punish Putin. I’m Asking It to Do the Same in Myanmar.

The US Can Put Sanctions on Russian Gas to Punish Putin. I’m Asking It to Do the Same in Myanmar.

Monday, 4 July, 2022 - 05:00

Myanmar’s modern history has been marked by colonial exploitation, military repression, violence and democracy denied. Grass-roots activists like me and thousands before me have dedicated our lives and sacrificed our safety to change this. But over the past year, an even deeper darkness has descended.

Since it overthrew our elected leaders in February 2021, the brutal and corrupt military that has held sway for decades has gunned down protesters, tortured opponents and plunged Myanmar into chaos.

The United States has rightfully condemned the junta and put in place some punitive measures. But Washington has refrained from taking a simple step that would weaken the generals’ ability to make war on their own people: imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s lucrative gas revenues.

The state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, or MOGE, which is now under the control of the junta, brings in estimated revenues of at least $1.5 billion per year through the sale of natural gas drawn from offshore fields. It provides around half of the hard currency that the military can use to pay for the bullets and troops that it turns against innocent civilians. Sanctions would save lives by cutting off a critical revenue stream that has helped bankroll the repression of Myanmar’s people for far too long.

Myanmar became independent in 1948 with the end of British colonial rule, but the military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in 1962. The generals and their cronies have dominated Myanmar since, profiting from our mineral, timber, energy and other natural wealth while imposing a self-isolation that deprived our people of the economic growth that has uplifted millions elsewhere in Asia. Public health standards are appalling, and corruption, drug trafficking and other criminal activity are rife. Ethnic minorities have faced decades of human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw, and ethnic organizations have taken up arms to resist this in an almost constant state of civil war. A new generation in Myanmar will no longer stand for this.

We had hoped that elections in 2015, in which the people resoundingly voted for democracy, would be a genuine leap forward in Myanmar’s democratic transition. Internet access had just become affordable for the average person, and we became more aware of the outside world and connected with global democracy movements.

Over the next few years we also learned more about the treatment of our many ethnic minorities. Myanmar’s military was accused of genocide against the Rohingya people after the 2015 election. We were demoralized when the civilian government we had voted for, headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, defended these horrors. The military retained substantial powers, but we had come too far to be ordered back into a cage. Then came last year’s coup.

Led by the junta chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, it followed another crushing electoral victory by pro-democracy groups. A nonviolent nationwide civil disobedience campaign was met with indiscriminate killing, torture, forced disappearances, use of people as human shields and other terror tactics. According to the United Nations, more than 1,900 people have been killed, including at least 142 children, and more than 13,500 have been arrested for opposing the junta.

Our nation of 54 million is now in free fall. One million people have been internally displaced, and an estimated 14 million urgently need humanitarian aid. State institutions and the already weak health system are collapsing. We are resisting nationwide. Tens of thousands have taken up arms in the jungle, reliant on the support of ethnic minority resistance organizations that in return have faced Tatmadaw airstrikes and artillery bombardments. Yet the Western reaction has been limited.

The Biden administration froze $1 billion in Myanmar government funds and imposed sanctions on many of Myanmar’s generals and on gemstone, timber and pearl enterprises that also fill their bank accounts. But amid lobbying by Chevron, which is involved in a joint venture with MOGE, President Biden refrained from targeting gas revenues.

Doing so would be a heavy blow to junta finances. MOGE’s operations are the single largest source of revenue for the state. Much of that comes from the major gas field that Chevron and France’s TotalEnergies operate along with MOGE and a Thai energy company. Both Chevron and TotalEnergies have argued that sanctions would saddle Myanmar citizens with escalating power cuts because natural gas is responsible for generating a portion of Myanmar’s electricity. But sanctions need not turn the gas off, and we are offended by the suggestion that we trade our freedom and safety for a few hours of electricity. The calls for sanctions on MOGE are being spearheaded not from abroad but from within Myanmar by hundreds of civil society organizations, activist groups and unions that have taken part in peaceful resistance to the military.

This year, TotalEnergies and Chevron announced plans to withdraw from Myanmar, but the junta would still be able to seize gas revenues through MOGE.

The European Union imposed some sanctions on MOGE, but they contain holes that can be exploited. We need US-led sanctions with real bite, like those employed to limit Russia’s ability to make war on Ukraine.

This won’t solve all of the problems that have built up in Myanmar through decades of military domination and misrule. But we must start with cutting off the Tatmadaw’s access to planes, bombs, bullets, jet fuel, surveillance equipment and other imported tools of repression. We want peace, prosperity and a truly democratic future for all of Myanmar’s people, no matter their ethnicity, free of military domination once and for all.

But as long as the gas revenue flows, so will the blood of Myanmar’s people.

The New York Times

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