While there is scant evidence that sanctions will shift the junta from its destructive and repressive course, a lack of alternative options to influence outcomes in Myanmar means they are likely to remain a feature of the response by Western countries.
A sharply worsening situation provides more context for sanctions against Myanmar. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, nearly 80 per cent of townships have been affected by conflict since the coup, with around 3000 people killed by security forces and more than 17,000 detained. All political parties, including the National League for Democracy, have been dissolved. Former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment. In 2022 Myanmar executed four prisoners, with hundreds more death sentences imposed.
This brutal record has shocked the world, including Western countries that had pinned hopes on Myanmar as a positive case of democratic transformation in the decade leading up to the coup.
The United States and European countries were quick to use sanctions as a key part of their response. The first US sanctions were imposed just 10 days after the coup. The United States has since imposed nearly 20 rounds of sanctions on Myanmar, targeting military leaders, their families, business entities associated with the military, state-owned enterprises, arms brokers and suppliers of aviation fuel. It has timed sanctions announcements to coincide with the anniversaries of the coup and other international events, such as International Human Rights Day.
The European Union and United Kingdom have also imposed multiple rounds of sanctions. EU restrictive measures, imposed over six separate rounds of sanctions, were applied to 93 individuals and 18 entities, while the United Kingdom has sanctioned 34 individuals and 27 entities.
Canada and Australia have also imposed some sanctions, though Australia did so only belatedly, on the second anniversary of the coup. New Zealand does not have autonomous sanctions but has imposed travel and other political restrictions on the regime.
There is little indication that these sanctions have changed the behaviour of the junta. Myanmar’s military has a lengthy history of surviving sanctions and declared from the outset that it could weather international sanctions. In the two years since, there is little to indicate a change in mindset. Instances of brutality have escalated. In April 2023 the Myanmar military killed an estimated 168 people in an airstrike.
The challenge that sanctions on Myanmar face is that the junta is far from friendless. There is diplomatic support from Russia and China — both permanent members of the UN Security Council — who would veto any sanctions resolution or arms embargo. China is Myanmar’s major economic partner and source of investment, while Russia is an increasingly important supplier of military equipment, including aircraft.
Myanmar also has diplomatic support from neighbouring countries, including India and Thailand. Both countries see maintaining ties with the junta as the best way to protect their interests. Thailand is also the largest importer of natural gas from Myanmar.
Beyond this support, even countries that are less friendly to the junta — such as Japan, Singapore and other Southeast Asian partners — do not support sanctions on Myanmar. Singapore has remained resolute in arguing that the situation in Myanmar will only be resolved by actors within the country. But in 2023 Singapore announced that it would prohibit the transfer of arms and dual-use items to Myanmar, despite the absence of UN Security Council authorised sanctions.
This means that sanctions will remain a tool used by only a handful of countries, led by the United States. That limits the political as well as practical impact of restrictive measures, as sanctioned entities and individuals can continue to operate with impunity in permissive jurisdictions.
Even with these limitations, the United States, European nations and other likeminded countries such as Canada are likely to implement further sanctions on Myanmar. One possibility is that although they may be aware that sanctions cannot change the calculus of the junta, they can deprive the regime of revenue or other resources — such as aviation fuel — in the hope that this helps incrementally weaken the military and strengthen the hand of opposition forces.
Another possible indirect benefit of sanctions — from the perspective of the United States and its partners — may be their ‘deterrent’ value in discouraging coups elsewhere. If would-be coup-makers in other countries see the impact of international condemnation on individuals associated with Myanmar’s coup, or on the economy, they may be more cautious about flouting democratic norms.
A more cynical interpretation is that repeated sanctions announcements enable the United States to present itself as ‘doing something’ with little risk or cost to itself. Realistically, the United States and other Western countries have little leverage or influence over Myanmar’s trajectory. Though the United States Congress recently passed the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act which authorises the provision of non-lethal assistance to Myanmar’s resistance and pro-democracy organisations, the Biden administration has been cautious about doing so. By contrast, sanctions keep the United States at arm’s length from involvement in the conflict.
Rather than formal sanctions being a game changer, decisions by private sector actors may be more influential. Since the coup, many international companies have withdrawn from the Myanmar — notably Japan’s Kirin beverage conglomerate and energy multinationals such as Woodside, Chevron and Total. The absence of overseas energy companies to develop new offshore gas fields could have a bigger impact on Myanmar’s domestic economy and export revenues than any foreseeable sanctions regime. These decisions are driven not just by business considerations, but by activism from within Myanmar and the international NGOs that have called for boycotts and divestment.
Susannah Patton is Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.