What is happening in Myanmar? Will sanctions really work?

2021. 3.28

The Myanmar military has seized power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country and other democratically elected leaders. The military started the coup on Feb 1st, and a nationwide protest broke out subsequently. The US raised the threat of new sanctions, with the UN and UK also condemning the coup. Until March 27th, More than 100 people including children were killed during the protests, and the numbers are still rising. There’s no sign of stopping. But the problem is what can we do about it? The one of the solutions is implementing sanctions. But do sanctions really work?

Myanmar has a shaky history with democracy. Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD won in a landslide in 2015 marked the start of democracy in Myanmar, and the end of her 15 years of detention at home by the military. However, now as Suu Kyi has been detained again by the military because of a military coup, Myanmar faces another hurdle to restore democracy. In order to restore democracy, international allies need to support, take actions and take power away from the military by the least damaging way, through sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi

She was once seen as a beacon for human rights – a principled activist who gave up her freedom to challenge the ruthless army generals who ruled Myanmar for decades.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is the current leader of Myanmar before the cup has started. She has a remarkable history of fighting for democracy. She spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 fighting democracy for Myanmar and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while still under house arrest. She was hailed as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”.

In 2015, she led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.

Her struggle to bring democracy to the military-ruled Myanmar made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

This February, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with illegally importing communications equipment. Police said they found seven walkie-talkie radios in her home which she was not authorized to possess. (which is a ridiculous reason to arrest the leader of the country)

What happened after NLD was elected?

While Myanmar returned to democracy, the government is still under the pressure of the military. The military could manipulate the government easily mostly because the military still has massive power and the government couldn’t do anything with it, at least they didn’t do it.

What is controversial is that Suu Kyi is complicit in the Rohingyan genocide, where she defended the leader of the action infront of the UN, which helps to prevent severe consequences to the leader, Min Aung Hliang. She stood up for the military and justified their actions to the world.

Her image had suffered internationally due to her response to the crisis of the genocide of Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. But she still remains hugely popular with the country’s Buddhist majority. There are two guesses why she stood up for the military leader: One is that she wants to remain high popularity in the country, because the country’s Buddhist majority wouldn’t care much about the genocide, so there’s no need to stand up for them while that may cause another chaos, she is scared of losing her position again. The second reason could be that the military is still manipulating her as an illusion of Myanmar’s democracy to the public. Either way, her protection of the military does not appeal to her position as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a country’s leader.

Will Sanctions work?

How do the sanctions work?

  • Sanctions like Asset freezes, Arms embargoes and various other sanctions with the intent to cut off the Myanmar military regime from weapons, and international investments are the effective sanctions to implement.

Asset freeze: An asset freeze aims to prevent an individual or entity from gaining access to property or other assets it may hold

Arms embargo: It prohibits exporting and importing arms and related materials to and from the targeted country, and may also prohibit communicating technical data or financial transactions related to military activities.

There are two sides of this, and is highly debatable. One is striving for changes, and one is more conservative. Either way makes sense, our goal is to show you the two alternatives and please leave your comment below for your preferred way.

Sanctions work

Sanctions will be Effective

Targeted sanctions reduce the Myanmar military’s power and reach by decreasing its access to weapons and funding, which is crucial to them if they want to continue suppressing protesters and stay in power.

Protests are not going to be effective on their own, the military is already pushing through a new cybersecurity bill which will allow them to access social media user data and to selectively shut down internet access, effectively allowing them to regulate the right to information and communication. This makes it easier to crack down and remove protests that stand to oppose the Military, and much harder to gather and organize large effective protests this is done on social media.

Sanctions must be introduced now in order to take advantage of the instability in Myanmar as well if left alone, we must act now because the protests are going to be quelled by the military in the form of the new cybersecurity bill.

This makes large, organized and coordinated protests hard to come by, effectively removing a large portion of the citizen’s voice. Sanctions take advantage of the instability created by protests, but protests will ultimately be quelled if left alone

Smart/specific sanctions are effective to addressing issues in Myanmar as there will be pressure both within the country and internationally, causing for the military having to concede as if they do not, they will only be putting themselves in struggling and weak position, which is completely unlikely as the military are obsessed with maintaining power and influence throughout Myanmar.

There is a Moral Imperative to Act

There have been decades of endless slaughter on the Rohingya ethnic minority, with 6,700 people being killed since 2020. Genocide on the Rohingya ethnic minority by the military show absolutely no sign of stopping on their own.

People have and are being forced to leave their homes, having family members “disappeared” or detained on faulty claims of dissidence, or outright murdered without the effort of a claim to legality have marked and marred the lives of many members of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. There are blatant examples of Rohingya being murdered, harmed, forced to leave homes, raped, detained and much more.

It is important to see that the Rohingya are part of a religious minority, with 87.9% of the population believing in Buddhist beliefs and 4.3% supporting Muslim beliefs (which the Rohingya do)

Roughly 860,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to avoid the atrocities being committed to their people

The West does not have the option to ignore these atrocities, and sanctions are the only way to take a stand against all this

It is unlikely for efforts against the Rohingya genocide will be taken from inside the country, as the opposition leader against the leader does not even address the genocide.

Sanctions don’t work

Military Economic sanctions are futile in the situation right now. Since sanctions are implemented by the West, sanctions have very limited impact when Myanmar has huge support and great connection with asian countries such as China, and key state-owned enterprises are left untouched and a looming cybersecurity law threatens to cut protesters from the outside world. Sanctions put those who are most at risk under detrimental harm, and do virtually nothing to those who we actually want to harm, making sanctions something that do nothing for the citizens of Myanmar.

Enforcing economic sanctions would disproportionately harm civilians

The military still stands, because they still monopolize the power in the country, making sanction a terrible choice for opposition, while people suffer more and the goals of the military losing power are not met.

Proves that sanctions don’t work (what happened during 2003-2016):

  • The US imposed comprehensive sanctions on Myanmar in 2003 and revoked them in 2016. Why? Because sanctions have failed.
  • Sanctions do not work unless all countries with relations agree. When the sanctions are implemented, Myanmar will turn to increased trade with asian trading partners (Thailand, China, ASEAN) There was increased trade, and sanctions never once interrupted it.
  • The only theoretical benefit of these sanctions was the installation of the Suu Kyi government. Suu Kyi, even after the sanctions became a “puppet” to the military, every action was orchestrated in order to ensure her power.
  • Furthermore, the sanctions do not target the most lucrative state-owned enterprises, such as Myanmar Economic Holdings, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanmar National Airlines and others. Huge amounts of money will be sent to from these enterprise to the military, to maintain the military regime
  • State owned enterprises may not be targeted by sanctions for the fear of harming citizens, which is fair, but means the sanctions have no chance of success on the ones in power.
  • These enterprises that are targeted are rather small and unprofitable for both sides, and likely are controlled or are involved with citizens that may already be under pressure.

Sanctions already have failed. Military ceded power for exactly as long as was politically convenient, and they will and can probably just do it again.

Cybersecurity law

New cybersecurity law will diminish protests on the ground and lessen the capacity for aid to reach people, or for the people to aid themselves. Means they’ll face the worse than predicted consequences of even “intelligent sanctions”

Aung San Suu Kyi supporters managed to operate beyond government constraints, more protests are now leveraging social media platforms, encrypted messengers, and multi-range broadcast devices to sidestep government restrictions in Myanmar and sustain the flow of information.

All that could change with the passage of the military’s incoming cybersecurity law.

This could hugely extend powers over user data and social media access, enabling the military to order internet shutdowns and provide the government access to personal information for “security reasons”

Taken together, the sanctions the west is composing appear tall on military targets, but short on the junta’s push to shut off dissent and end international scrutiny on an illegal coup

While Myanmar would feel the sanctions at first, would begin to rely more on Asian countries (China, Thailand) that can keep them afloat

China and ASEAN are key players worth Washington’s engagement in shaping developments in Myanmar.


  • China is undoubtedly Myanmar’s biggest partner. Some of China’s most promising energy investments in Myanmar trace their origins to the military elite, and several decades of economic trade remain unchallenged by domestic upheaval. What is even more convincing that the Chinese government is supporting the military is that they refrained from criticism and blocked out the progress against the military.


  • ASEAN’s interests are held together by a similar thread. On the one hand, the bloc’s principle of noninterference permits the likes of Cambodia and Thailand to put their weight behind Myanmar’s military status-quo, without facing broad-based resistance within the alliance.
  • ASEAN’ s engagement of Myanmar was chief to its recent democratic transition.

Does more harm than good

Loss of foreign investment will directly affect citizens and infrastructure in a way that isn’t for the military leaders. No matter what, the rich leaders will feel little to no effect from sanctions (they already have power/money, AND they can always get more money from raising taxes). This means the citizens are actually the only ones feeling significant change from sanctions.

This puts the already dis-advantage Myanmar citizens in a state where they are vulnerable to military leaders taking large sums of money for their own benefit

Myanmar’s economy is already COVID-19 ravaged and Myanmar’s citizens are feeling the effects. Malnutrition and homelessness were growing concerns already, and adding the squeeze of even targeted sanctions which will be passed down on to the citizens will only worsen these problems. Economic troubles even before the pandemic existed, so the minute citizens in Myanmar have to face both targeted sanctions, coup and the virus, their livelihood worsens to terrible condition, while those in the military (who are also richer anyways) will not feel as much through sanctions due to years of collecting large sums of money. This means that sanctions do the opposite of what are intended, they put a vulnerable group of people at an even more disproportionate status, thus doing more harm than actual good.


These are the two sides of this. But what happened recently, is that the US, UK, EU, Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries’ defence chiefs have signed a statement that condemns the acts of the military’s bloodshed. The 12 nations have urged the Myanmar military to follow international standards of conduct. “The military is responsible for protecting not harming the people itself.”

But there is a limit to what statements can do.

What we are hoping is that by implementing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions to the military, we can finally push the military out of power.









Image Links: