Analysis: How will the Myanmar Army React to US Sanctions?

By The Irrawaddy 10 November 2017

YANGON — It has been nearly a month now since the EU and US State Department issued announcements on taking action against Myanmar’s military leadership and the consideration of targeted sanctions. But the military is yet to officially respond.

Both the EU and US suspended invitations to the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces and other senior military officers and pledged to review all practical defense cooperation due to the disproportionate use of force against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State.

The military leadership has remained tight-lipped on the US sanctions. The Facebook page of the military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has been radio silent on the issue.

The page normally posts important statements as well as lengthy meeting minutes between the Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and international dignitaries in which the army chief talks about the Rakhine issue and how the army is operating on the ground.

Only the country’s defence minister Lt-Gen Sein Win told the media at a sideline interview that they were not concerned about the restrictions against the military leadership on Oct 15, one day before the EU’s announcement to cut ties with the Myanmar military.

“We are not much worried about what other people said [about the sanctions] as we are doing right things to defend the country,” he said.

The State Counselor Office’s director-general U Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy that the US actions could hinder the government’s ongoing peace process, development and democratization as a whole.

“Their actions are not compatible with where we are heading now. Ordinary people are the most vulnerable when it comes to sanctions,” he said.

Analysts said the sanctions were meant to shame the Myanmar military in to pursuing the army’s accountability for human rights abuses in Rakhine State.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to know if the sanctions would put more strain on relations between the Myanmar military leadership and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

It has been reported that the government and the military—the most powerful and established institution in Myanmar—are not stable. When asked in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described relations as “normal.” But other signs suggest relations are not good, the most recent example being the declaration of a state of emergency in Rakhine State.

For the recent sanctions, the military leadership would surely feel annoyed, for they have been identified in the Rakhine issue as a main culprit of the atrocities there. The military has historically been suspicious of the Lady given her proximity to the West. What if they think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is behind the sanctions against them in an effort to divert mounting international pressure on the Rohingya issue?

If they really have that impression, the national reconciliation between the armed forces and the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government would be rockier.

Once again, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be walking a difficult tightrope, as she can’t officially defend the military against the sanctions.

Any act to stand with the army on the Rakhine issue would severely tarnish her global reputation, one that has already been tainted due to her silence on the Rohingya issue. But she is also in danger of being seen as an accomplice in the sanctions.

So far, she hasn’t made any comments about the issue. The strongest statements she has made about the army operation was in her diplomatic briefing in September: “Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice.”

Next week will see Rex Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar, where he is supposed to meet with the country’s leaders, including Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. It should be taken for granted that the army chief and the secretary of state will discuss the sanctions in more detail.

Actually, they already had a conversation right after the US sanction announcement, but the outcome hasn’t been publicized yet. Hopefully, next week’s meetings in Naypyitaw will shed more light on the issue, and the US will learn more about how the Myanmar military really feels about the return of sanctions.