Challenges and prospects for Burma act


From the first imposed sanctions against Myanmar in 1997, the United States takes a historical stride by passing the Burma act 2021 as a law before 2022 ended. President Biden signed the act into a law on 23rd December which has been passed by both, the house and senate. The bill which originally was a response to the military coup in Myanmar on February 2021, the initial version of it got rejected in the senate back then.

Myanmar has been listed as a “country of particular concern (CPC)” under U.S. policy. The Southeast Asian nation’s infamous reputation is a result of its history of violating human rights and religious freedom. As Myanmar transitioned gradually to democracy under the leadership of Aung San Su Kyi, such “concerns” began to see a new beginning. But in February of 2021, the military imprisoned the state counselor Su Kyi, overthrew the elected government NLD, and seized control of the country, reversing the hard-won progress. The Burma Act is an acknowledgment of the bravery of Myanmar’s people, who have been rebelling against the military’s repression, quitting their jobs, and taking the fight to the streets for nearly two years since then and could prove to be a game changer for them.

Answer to Junta’s intransigence

The United States has traditionally maintained a “democracy first” approach in its involvement with Myanmar, and the newly enacted legislation provides the Biden administration with three prospects for advancing the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. First, the act permits the United States to provide assistance and communicate directly with anti-junta groups such as NUG, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, PDF, and EAOs. Potential consultations with EAOs are very necessary, as their altercations with the military and democratic institutions have been superficial at best, and the US has overlooked them all along; without their involvement, the speech for ethnic reconciliation in the Burma act will remain rhetorical.

Under the act, $450 million will be provided in financial aid to help with humanitarian needs, sustain the civil disobedience movement, protect the political prisoners, support activists, media, and military defectors along with financial support to the civil society organizations in Myanmar who have been essential in the pro-democracy movement reaching the pleas of people of Myanmar to the international stage.

Second, the law mandates the administration to impose sanctions on senior army officials and any entity, state-owned commercial businesses, and individuals linked with the junta’s economic backing within six months. This will place enormous pressure on the Junta, which has repeatedly demonstrated its economic ineptitude in dealing with financial crises.

Lastly, the legislation has also taken account of the Rohingya issue, US has to facilitate international justice mechanisms to hold the military accountable for their campaign of 2017 against the Rohingya people. Humanitarian assistance has been ensured for the Rohingya refugees even prior to the act as in 2021, $205 million has been provided for the community.

Is it enough?

The Burma Act is packed with optimism and assurances, but whether it will hold water or not, is a discussion that will fuel itself in the coming times. Although an honest attempt, it does have its flaws.

Most sanction measures are discretionary, not mandatory which is a letdown at a moment when the civilians are preparing for a spring revolution against the military. Even the most anticipated sanction measures against Myanmar’s state-owned oil and gas company, MOGE, haven’t also been finalized stating that such action needs reports of cost and benefit when cutting it out would have been a huge blow to the regime as it’s their main financial asset. The fact that US oil conglomerate Chevron is involved with MOGE’s operations in a particular gas field, Yadana, doesn’t help US cause. Leaving Junta’s dominant hand free, it will be hard for any other measures to free Myanmar from Junta’s claws.

The act also posits to provide “non-lethal” aid to the anti-junta movement meaning no support of arms and weaponry. But when countries like China and Russia are supplying Junta with weapons, a more robust policy to support the training of the soldiers could have been expected. Although US has also called for a denunciation of China and Russia’s cooperation with Myanmar through the UN, in light of the current situation in Ukraine, such a demand is unlikely to amount to anything. It’s also frustrating that in comparison with Ukraine, the aid to Myanmar is totally peanuts.

The US efforts for Myanmar’s freedom ask for more in the existing context where countries like China, Russia, India, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam are cutting US strategy to isolate the Junta. To avoid another case of  Iraq, the USA needs a more coherent implementation strategy for Burma act if it really wants to get above the geopolitics and aid the people of Myanmar in their fight to reconstitute democracy.

Sadia Aktar Korobi
Sadia Aktar Korobi
I’m Sadia Aktar Korobi, currently studying at University of Dhaka in the department of Peace and Conflict Studies (MSS). I have graduated from the same department recently. My research interests include peace studies, international relations and gender studies.


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