Dear High Representative / Vice-President Borrell, and Foreign Ministers of EU member states,
We write to urge the European Union and its member states to fully implement the targeted sanctions that were imposed against the leadership of Myanmar’s abusive military junta, and to urgently adopt additional sanctions against further military officials and military-owned companies.
Since the February 1, 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military has responded with increasing brutality to the nationwide protests calling for a restoration of democracy. Security forces have killed over 550 people, including at least 45 children as young as 5, and detained an estimated 2,700 activists, journalists, civil servants, and politicians. Hundreds have been forcibly disappeared, which could amount to crimes against humanity. Over the past weeks, the military has demonstrated a callous disregard for human life that has driven its strategy for decades. In video footage from cities and towns across the country, soldiers can be seen shooting down children on motorbikes, brutally beating medical aid workers, and firing shotguns into crowds of peacefully protesting doctors.
In response to the killings of more than 100 civilians by Myanmar forces on March 27, EU High Representative Josep Borrell stated, “We will continue to use the EU’s mechanisms, including sanctions, to target the perpetrators of this violence, and those responsible for turning back the clock on Myanmar’s path of democracy and peace.”
We welcome this pledge and urge that such actions be undertaken comprehensively and without delay. Concretely, we call on the EU to urgently sanction the conglomerates Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). This should be a clear cut decision for the EU, as these are the same state enterprises that the EU sanctioned for abuses during the earlier period of military rule; MEHL and MEC subsidiaries and directors were previously subjected to EU sanctions and should be again. These two conglomerates generate vast revenues without any effective oversight or regulation, in turn affording the military immense profits and influence.
The EU and its international partners should also move to block payments to Myanmar from its lucrative oil and gas sector. Gas wealth is the single greatest source of the military’s revenues, reducing access to which would significantly influence its calculations. The EU, along with the United States, United Kingdom, Thailand, Singapore, and other governments, should design measures to block payments to the junta and state-owned enterprises from foreign-financed oil and gas projects.
The United States and the United Kingdom have already imposed sanctions against MEHL and MEC, and both companies were also identified in a 2019 United Nations report as providing substantial revenue for those responsible for crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims. It is crucial that the EU join its international partners and impose maximum coordinated targeted sanctions to put as much pressure as possible on the Myanmar military and its leaders. If sanctions are robustly enforced across different jurisdictions, there will be greater direct economic impact on targeted individuals and entities.
Previous sanctions played a tangible role in pressuring the military to embark on the reform process that led to steps towards respect for human rights and the holding of elections. But the international excitement to embrace the move to partial civilian rule unnecessarily eased the pressure needed to push the process further and faster. In April 2012, Human Rights Watch advised that any easing of sanctions should be undertaken slowly, and only in response to significant and specific steps toward reform and rights protections. “Sanctions against key uniformed leaders of the armed forces should be maintained,” we urged, along with restrictions on extractive industries that are “monopolized by the military, managed in a way that fuels corruption, and have the effect of increasing the autonomy and impunity of the military.” Unfortunately, the EU Council soon announced it was suspending all restrictions on Myanmar except for the arms embargo, “as a means to welcome and encourage the reform process,” noting it would “monitor closely the situation on the ground.”
We expect that renewed maximum coordinated targeted sanctions—and robust enforcement—will have impact. The Myanmar military’s economic situation is not the same as it was during previous periods of military rule. The military’s financial interests and relationships are less insular, more integrated into the global economy, offering even greater opportunities for sanctions to be effective.
The people of Myanmar find themselves once against facing the military’s bullets, but they courageously continue their struggle, unrelenting. EU condemnation and efforts to advance accountability and justice for grave, widespread, and systematic abuses by the military junta are welcome and important, yet words and partial steps are not enough. Additional sanctions are urgently needed. Myanmar’s junta needs to be shown there are both immediate and longer-term consequences for their grievous crimes.
We stand ready to discuss these issues further with you any time.
Human Rights Watch
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch