An Anniversary for Mourning, not Celebration

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readJun 25, 2024

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Lauren Tse (PPS ‘24)

Lauren Tse (PPS ‘24)

Originally published on February 1st, 2023.

Two years ago, the world watched with bated breath as a Nobel laureate was put behind bars. Pre-eminent peace icon Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with criminal offenses and detained without trial. Today, she awaits over 26 years in prison.

A year later, Myanmar’s streets fell silent. Millions took to a ‘silent strike’, standing in solidarity against the military junta, who forcefully seized power from the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Today, Myanmar marks its second year under the Tatmadaw’s military dictatorship. Malnutrition, drug abuse and human trafficking have now become a daily reality for 54 million civilians. Thousands of schoolchildren carry guns, not books.

The people of Myanmar cry out, but who will heed their call?

The US has a powerful tool in its arsenal that can seriously weaken the junta: gas sanctions. A tool that, if employed decisively, can very well turn the tide.

But to understand Myanmar’s plight, we must first understand its history — one marked by exploitation and violence. Following the end of British rule, the military junta seized control. They exclusively profiteered off Myanmar’s natural resources, while a third of its citizens lived below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have faced murder and sexual violence. After the coup d’état in 2021 ended a brief decade of democratic reforms, the junta has since employed airstrikes, arson and arrests.

Fortunately, the international community has not ignored these atrocities. The US has imposed punitive sanctions on high-ranking generals, and the state-owned pearl and timber enterprises that fill their coffers. The EU has similarly unleashed arms embargo and export bans. However, Washington has avoided levying the most potent sanction of all: gas revenues. A sanction which would significantly impair the junta’s finances — money which has bankrolled atrocities to Myanmar’s people for decades.

The U.S. must levy sanctions against Myanmar’s state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which generates over $1.5 billion in revenue and 10 percent of Myanmar’s total income. More importantly, it encompasses half of Myanmar’s foreign earnings, which the junta uses to pay its foreign arms dealers and fuel suppliers. These transactions directly supply the Tatmadaw with jet fuel to launch air strikes on civilian homes, and ammunition to snipe unarmed protestors. Death tolls have already surpassed 2,000.

Recent reports reveal that the Central Bank of Myanmar has instructed local banks to cease repaying foreign loans, signs that point to a shortage of foreign reserves. With sanctions, banks would not be able to authorize these transactions, preventing the junta from acquiring more tools of repression.

However, President Biden faces legitimate policy dilemmas. Energy companies like Chevron and TotalEnergies assert that natural gas sanctions could paralyze Myanmar’s electricity grid, resulting in power cuts. The French government echoes these concerns, and remain reluctant to saddle Myanmar civilians with further hardships.

However, Myanmar’s people have explicitly declared their overwhelming support for sanctions. Over 637 domestic groups have advocated for MOGE’s sanctions, sending 220,000 open letters to President Biden himself. Despite potential job loss, a TotalEnergies employee implores, “I don’t want to survive by working here while everyone is suffering.” Millions have already undertaken personal sanctions through withholding taxes and refusing electricity payments.

Yet, another challenge remains: the junta does not operate in a silo. Moscow is a major gas supplier that can continue supplying Myanmar even with MOGE’s sanction; Beijing is developing billion-dollar gas projects in Myanmar. With vested interests, China and Russia have blocked all United Nations Security Council resolutions for sanctions. Existing EU sanctions also embed a derogation clause, which excludes transactions with MOGE. As a unified global arms embargo appears bleak, the US is strategically placed to impose unilateral sanctions. With skyrocketing gas prices, gas revenue is even more critical to the junta’s foreign earnings. If Congress includes these sanctions in the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass defense bill, they could very well turn the tide.

At this juncture, Myanmar’s priority is not long-term regime change but a decisive blow to the junta’s ability to wage civilian attacks. After months of inaction, sanctions would reinforce America’s solidarity with Myanmar.

Ko Ye is a spokesman for activist group Blood Money Campaign, and his plea echoes throughout Myanmar. “The United States, it is time to stop protecting democracy only with words.”

Perhaps it is time to reconsider. Today, Myanmar marks its loss of democracy and freedom. A milestone not of festivities and merriment, but to mourn a nation in freefall.

For until money to Tatmadaw stops running, the blood on Myanmar’s soil will not.

Lauren Tse (PPS ’24) is from Singapore and is studying Economics and Public Policy at Duke University. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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