Analysis: Are Sanctions the Answer in the Rakhine Crisis?

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 31 October 2017

YANGON — In its strongest response so far to the Myanmar Army’s handling of the Rakhine crisis, the United States last week joined the chorus of international condemnation by taking action against the country’s military leadership and considering targeted sanctions.

It was the second reaction by the international community this month to the Southeast Asian nation, following the European Union and its member states suspending invitations to the Myanmar Army chief and other senior military officers and reviewing all practical defense cooperation because of the disproportionate use of force against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State.

In its statement, the US State Department said: “We are exploring accountability mechanisms available under US law, including Global Magnitsky targeted sanctions.”

The US actions starting from Wednesday include the cessation of travel waivers for current and former members of the Myanmar military and a ban on US assistance for units and officers in northern Rakhine State. The US stated it was also mulling economic measures against those responsible for atrocities against the Rohingya.

The international community has been condemning Myanmar armed forces for inflicting on Rohingya Muslims arbitrary killings, arson and rape in northern Rakhine amid clearance operations that intensified in late August.

The operations were sparked by Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks on 30 police outposts in the region on Aug 25. The government denounced the group as “terrorists” and, in the aftermath of the attacks, more than 600,000 Muslims have fled to Bangladesh as of late October.

Myanmar armed forces chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly denied claims of atrocities, saying that his troops followed the rules of engagement.

But the US State Department’s announcement along with the EU’s action against the military leadership has raised concerns inside the country. US restrictions on its engagement with and military sales to the Myanmar Army were already in place.

Given the scope of the sanctions, however, some political observers have said the US actions will have little tangible impact on the military, but are instead designed to shame the armed forces, which has been trying to reengage with its international counterparts to develop a universally respected army after decades of Western sanctions.

Ko Ye of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies said the US actions pursue the army’s accountability for human rights abuses in Rakhine State.

“Despite the army’s current engagement with the West, we haven’t seen anything about Myanmar Army’s dependence on them. Seemingly, the actions are intended to have a negative impact on the image of the institution rather than any substantial impacts,” he said.

The Myanmar government seems to have taken the US announcement seriously though, perhaps because it is more precise than the EU statement, which would “suspend invitations,” “review all practical defense cooperation” and consider additional measures.”

On Thursday, an editorial in state-run newspaper The Mirror slammed the US actions against the military leadership, saying “those actions by no means help solve problems in Rakhine State.”

“What the international community should do is assess the military stand [on the Rakhine issue]—right or wrong—through dialogue,” said the editorial in the Myanmar-language paper.

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 have also voiced concerns that targeted sanctions against the military leadership could increase tension between the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government and the country’s powerful Tatmadaw—one of the biggest in Southeast Asia.

“As the government has been struggling for national reconciliation, especially with the military, I am concerned that targeted sanctions would derail the effort,” said U Maung Maung Soe, a Yangon-based political observer.

Sanctions Never Work

Myanmar and its some 400,000-strong military is no stranger to sanctions imposed by the West.

The EU has imposed sanctions on Myanmar since 1991, in the form of an arms embargo and visa ban on senior members of the then military regime State Law and Order Restoration Council, senior members of the security forces and their families.

Except for an arms embargo, all sanctions were suspended in 2013 in order to welcome and encourage reform.

US economic and financial sanctions were imposed in 1997 and were meant to isolate the then military junta. The US Treasury’s blacklist included former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, his military associates, military-owned businesses and cronies linked to military officials, but were lifted last year.

But the West’s decade-long sanctions have never been credited for the democratic transition in Myanmar that started in 2011.

Observers like Thant Myint-U write “the impetus for change came not from western sanctions, which only reinforced isolation.”

For some, the EU and US have not got far enough on punitive measures against the military.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said via email it was “very disappointing that the EU decided not to impose any sanctions on the military, “only suspending invitations to senior military officers.”

“The failure of the USA to impose any significant sanctions combined with European Union is basically giving a green light for the military to continue ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya,” he said.

U Maung Maung Soe said western sanctions have never worked for Myanmar.

“History has proved that it was the people who suffered most while the military leadership and China profited most out of the sanctions,” he said, referring to the fact that western restrictions pushed the generals closer to China during the days of sanctions.

On Friday, International Crisis Group warned policy makers in Europe that re-imposing sanctions may not be helpful to address Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis as it could risk constraining future policy options as well as sending unintended signals to investors, impacting the economy to the detriment the country’s people.

Meanwhile, the impact of the re-imposition of sanctions remains hazy. In the wake of the US announcement, the military withdrew parts of its troops from northern Rakhine State and allowed the World Food Program to resume its aid work in the area. No one knows exactly if these decisions are the results of the sanctions. The military still has not yet made any official comment—both on the troops withdrawal and the re-imposition of sanctions.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to know how the restrictions on the military will affect the implementation of recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

In conflict-torn northern Rakhine, the army would play a crucial role in the implementation, as they are at the forefront of operations on the ground and a considerable source of information.

Being aware of the army’s position, the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State notes that a high degree of autonomy for the military part of the government muddies the search for and implementation of a coherent and harmonized policy to the complex problems of Rakhine.

When asked if the sanctions would have any impact on the army’s cooperation, U Aye Lwin, a Muslim member of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said he wanted only to see “more positive approaches” rather than saying “yes or no” to re-imposing sanctions against the military.

“For the international community, it would be better to negotiate through dialogue,” he said.