Protesters hold signs as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup in front of the Indonesian embassy in Yangon on February 24, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

It remains unclear exactly what form of sanctions the European Union (EU) will impose on Myanmar’s military junta. This is despite the bloc’s foreign ministers stating on February 22 that they are “ready to adopt restrictive measures” against those who led the military coup of February 1 that removed Myanmar’s democratically-elected civilian government. 

The EU’s foreign ministers said they would target “those directly responsible for the military coup and their economic interests,” although it is thought that this won’t include trade sanctions against Myanmar itself. 

The United States has already imposed targeted sanctions against several key military figures, several of whom have been accused of overseeing the at times brutal response to peaceful protests, which since February 1 have demanded the return of the democratically-elected government. 

On the same day as the European Council met on February 22, which also featured a video-conference with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Washington imposed sanctions on another two Myanmar military leaders, which will see their US assets frozen and bar American firms from doing business with them. 

Over in London, Britain’s minister for Asia, Nigel Adams, summoned the Burmese ambassador for the second time to tell him that “the use of violence and force against protesters, which has already led to death and serious injury, was completely reprehensible and must stop,” according to a statement by the Foreign Office. So far, at least three protesters in Myanmar have been killed. 

The military – known locally as the Tatmadaw – ran Myanmar for five decades until agreeing to political reform in 2011. Four years later, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was finally allowed to take power after winning yet another election, with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi taking the reins as State Counsellor. 

However, the military’s influence over politics remained. Constitutionally, it is guaranteed a quarter of all seats in parliament, effectively giving it a veto over the civilian government, whilst the threat of a military coup has been a very real possibility since 2015. 

This screengrab taken on January 4, 2017, from a YouTube video shows a policeman (back L) kicking a Rohingya villager seated on the ground with others in the village of Kotankauk during a police area clearance operation on November 5, 2016. Photo: AFP/YouTube/Zaw Myo Htike

Rohingya repression

In early 2017, the Tatmadaw started another wave of repression against the Muslim Rohingya minority that escalated into genocide. 

Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country. At least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in 2017 alone and estimates vary as to the exact death toll, which may be in the tens of thousands if fatalities caused by forced migration are factored in. 

Suu Kyi and the NLD, which is most popular among the country’s Bamar ethnic majority, publicly defended and justified the military’s genocidal actions, earning international censure for Suu Kyi, once considered a pro-democracy icon. 

On February 23, Brussels also made available an additional €39 million (US$47.4 million) in humanitarian aid to conflict-affected communities in Bangladesh and Myanmar, meaning the Rohingya, of which about €11 million will be spent in Myanmar. 

“The recent military overthrow of the legitimate government in Myanmar risks worsening the already dire humanitarian crisis faced by displaced and conflict-affected populations,” the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said in a statement. 

The NLD won re-election at November’s general election, which the military-aligned parties claimed was fraudulent. 

On February 1, the military seized power, put Suu Kyi and President Win Myint under house arrest and vowed it would stage fresh elections, which, if they happen, are almost certain to be conducted in the military’s favor. 

Many analysts as well as human-rights campaigners argue that targeted sanctions by the US or EU aren’t enough: in order to really threaten the military junta foreign governments need to punish the military’s business conglomerates, which control vast swaths of the country’s economy.

Myanmar’s President Win Myint (L) and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2019. Both are under arrest. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

West’s end-goals

Doing so, of course, would impact the bottom lines of Western firms, many of which do business with the military-run conglomerates, while international sanctions would also likely imperil China’s trade relations with Myanmar, posing a risk of the Myanmar situation escalating into a US-China spat. 

There are also questions about the end-goals of the EU, as well as the US and UK. 

On February 22, the European Council said in a statement that the way to de-escalate tensions is for the “end to the state of emergency, the restoration of the legitimate civilian government and the opening of the newly elected parliament.” It also called on the military junta to “immediately and unconditionally release” President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.  

“While the EU is ready to support dialogue with all key stakeholders to resolve the situation, the council stated that the EU stands ready to adopt restrictive measures targeting those directly responsible for the military coup and their economic interests,” the statement added. 

British Foreign Minister Dominac Raab said at a UN Human Rights Council meeting that “the military must step aside … Civilian leaders must be released. And the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar must be respected.” 

So far, the goal of the Europeans appears to be for the situation in Myanmar to return to the status quo ante, a similar policy they’ve employed for problems elsewhere in the region, including over the political impasse in Cambodia since 2017. 

Increasingly, however, it appears that a return to pre-February 1 in Myanmar is not possible. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the NLD government is restored and Suu Kyi allowed to retake her position, the civilian government would still face the very real threat of yet another military coup at some point in the future. 

Indeed, ever since they took up governance in 2015, civilian authorities have known that such a putsch is very possible, one reason why Suu Kyi publicly defended the military-led genocide against the Rohingya minority that began in 2016.  

Myanmar teachers hold signs as they march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar on February 19, 2021. Photo: AFP/Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto

Constitutional changes

One possible outcome, even in the event that the military walks back its coup, is that Myanmar politics becomes a replica of Thailand’s, where successive democratically-elected governments are ousted by the military only for the entire process to restart anew.

Aware of that, many protesters in Myanmar are calling for major constitutional changes, including to resolutions that automatically guarantee the military a quarter of all parliamentary seats, as well as the restoration of the NLD government. 

The military’s parliamentarians vetoed a motion last year, put forward by the civilian government, that would have reduced its number of seats over the next 15 years. And there is no guarantee that such an outcome would be possible even if the NLD government is returned to power again. 

Some demonstrators are also calling for a new federalized system, one solution to ethnic-conflict in many parts of the country that has created instability between the civilian government and the military. 

The question for Western democracies is whether they want a speedy resolution to the current crisis or long-term solutions. Furthermore, aside from strong words and targeted sanctions, there appears little they can do to influence events.  

The Indonesian foreign ministry has been forced to deny a Reuters report from February 22 that asserted Jakarta was in favor of accepting the military’s junta promise to hold fresh elections, which would essentially legitimize the coup and the junta’s claims that November’s ballot was rigged. 

Nonetheless, a junta-appointed envoy met with the Thai and Indonesian foreign ministers in Bangkok on February 24, and it is believed that back-channel discussions between the junta and the other Southeast Asian governments are being conducted. 

White House National Security AdviserJake Sullivan has spoken with ASEAN officials. Photo: AFP/Mark Makela/Getty Images

ASEAN’s role

A number of analysts reckon the best hope for a peaceful resolution to the Myanmar crisis will be found if the lead is taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, a habitually conservative institution that has been uncharacteristically outspoken against the coup. 

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with ambassadors from ASEAN last week, as did US State Secretary Blinken. 

“The US knows its actions, even combined with other western countries, will not move the needle on Myanmar, and seek to build a coordinated international approach whereby ASEAN plays a leading role,” Nehginpao Kipgen, a Myanmar expert, wrote on February 24. 

A recent South China Morning Post editorial argued: “The major powers should signal strong support for ASEAN and leave room for its members to resolve the crisis.”

But what if the regional bloc, in effect, accepts the coup and attempts to move things along to new elections, essentially the same attitude it took after the Thai military coup in 2014, at which elections weren’t held again until 2019? Should the EU and UK feel compelled to back the regional position, even if it goes against what their governments have demanded?