US prepares additional Myanmar sanctions as protests escalate

The Biden administration is preparing a new package of sanctions to squeeze the finances of Myanmar’s military junta, according to US officials and several people briefed on the matter.

The measures would come on top of sanctions announced by the Biden team last month targeting General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders, as well as three mining and gemstone companies.

After the first round of sanctions were announced, officials from the US state and Treasury departments as well as the National Security Council subsequently met late last month to discuss options to accelerate efforts to cut off financial flows to the coup’s military leaders as conditions in the country worsened, said three people briefed on the matter.

The US government has considered additional measures, including options to target state-owned enterprises or their subsidiaries, as part of its promise to put human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its foreign policy, the people briefed on the matter said.

While activists have pressed Washington to sanction Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the state energy company, the Biden administration is likely to take less drastic measures, according to people briefed on the potential measures.

Its options could include sanctioning additional subsidiaries of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), the military’s conglomerates, or the two umbrella entities themselves. The US could also sanction additional individuals.

The US commerce department has already added MEHL and MEC to a trade blacklist, and last week said it was “reviewing potential additional measures as warranted by the military’s actions”.

Campaigners have pressed the administration to look at sanctioning MOGE in order to freeze or redirect payments due from partners in some of its natural gas projects, which include Total and Chevron. Thomas Andrews, the UN’s human rights investigator on Myanmar, has also called for sanctions on MOGE.

Myanmar earns close to $1bn a year from foreign sales of gas, its second-largest export industry after manufacturing.

A senior administration official said: “As is standard practice on sanctions questions, we have nothing to preview.” The US Treasury and US Department of State did not immediately reply to requests to comment.

Human rights organisations, including Justice for Myanmar, a non-governmental group focused on Myanmar military-linked businesses, have appealed for dividend payments to MOGE to be withheld because it is now in the junta’s hands.

The sanctions deliberations come as Myanmar’s military violently suppresses a nationwide civil disobedience movement in which people across the country take part in protests and work stoppages.

The regime has killed at least 60 people, mostly shooting deaths, and imprisoned nearly 2,000, including the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint, since the February 1 coup. The UK and Canada have also imposed sanctions on junta officials, and Australia and New Zealand have cut back their ties with the military.

“They’re working really hard on sanctions packages, but they need to move faster at a pace commensurate with the crisis,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said of the Biden administration.

“The junta is shooting protesters on the streets . . . You’ve got to do something to show the junta there’s not just a domestic consequence, but major international consequences too.”

Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar’s military, vowed to encourage business and investment as usual after the coup, but the upheaval that followed it, including strikes targeting the banking system and transport, have started to hurt the country’s economy.

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