Want to Stop Burmese Military Atrocities? Sanction Oil and Gas

A wave of global revulsion met the news last month that the Burmese military junta had executed four pro-democracy activists on bogus charges. For all their words of condemnation, however, global powers have so far hesitated to strike the military in the place it would hurt them the most: the massive profits they draw each year from fossil fuel extraction. If the international community is serious about opposing the military’s crimes, it is time to drop their taboo on sanctioning oil and gas. Doing so would not only punish the junta and hold them accountable—it would also hinder their ability to commit future crimes. 

To be sure, the execution of the democracy activists on July 25 was not the first time the Burmese military has killed civilians. By most estimates, the junta has murdered nearly 2,200 pro-democracy activists, civil disobedience demonstrators, and other civilians since seizing power in a lawless coup in February 2021. Thousands more have been detained, arrested, tortured, and disappeared. The Burmese military also wages a terrorizing air campaign in areas of the country populated mostly by ethnic minorities—burning down and decimating villages with reckless disregard for human life. And this is not even to mention the campaign of genocide they began against the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority even before coup took place; this month will mark five years that the campaign has been active.

But the July 25 murder of the four activists marked the first official executions the regime has carried out in more than three decades. They also targeted beloved high-profile members of the country’s pro-democracy movement who have resisted military rule for decades. As such, the executions marked a new escalation of the military’s campaign of terror. 

Unsurprisingly, the international community was appalled by the military’s actions. Governments like the United States issued strong words of condemnation; and even some regional powerbrokers who have so far been relatively quiet on the issue—such as India—broke their silence in the wake of these state-sponsored murders. Very few governments or multilateral institutions would side openly with the military’s decision to execute pro-democracy leaders in cold blood, and more than ever are now speaking openly in condemnation of the military’s actions. 

The global outrage over the executions has resulted in a fresh outpouring of words, in short—but will it prompt concrete action? The United States has already imposed targeted sanctions on high-ranking Burmese military officials and many of the corporate entities they use to enrich themselves. What more could they do? 

It turns out: much more. As swiftly as the U.S. brought sanctions last year, after all, and as vocal as they have been in condemnation of the junta’s atrocities—they have stopped short of blocking one of the military’s biggest profit streams of all: oil and gas revenues. Economic analysts calculate the Myanmar military earns nearly $1.5 billion each year from these industries, making up roughly 10% of the junta’s total annual revenue. So long as this money keeps flowing, that means the Burmese military is able to purchase more guns, planes, jet fuel and other military supplies, all of which they use against civilians. If the international community truly wants to hobble the military from inflicting fresh atrocities and killing more people, therefore, oil and gas sanctions have to be on the table. 

In the wake of the July 25 executions, there are signs that more U.S. politicians have begun to wake up to this fact. Recent reporting indicates that senior members of the Biden administration as well as high-ranking members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees are actively weighing oil and gas sanctions. And a bill in the House that would help to hold the Burmese military accountable, known as the “Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability” (BURMA) Act, has already passed the House. Senate leadership just needs to approve the bill for markup and then take it up for a vote. 

But pockets of opposition remain. After a spring and summer of record-high energy prices, further restrictions on oil and gas can sound like a tough sell. And some critics of sanctions worry about the indirect collateral consequences they could have on ordinary Burmese citizens who are already suffering under the military’s rule. However, these targeted sanctions would take aim directly at the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE)—a massive conglomerate controlled by the Burmese military, all of whose profits go to enrich and fuel the junta. 

Besides, profits should never be put above human lives and the world will need to transition away from fossil fuels entirely by the end of the decade if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Why not start with the oil and gas projects that are being used to enable one of the worst dictatorial regimes on the planet? 

Taken together, the arguments to hold off on sanctions any longer don’t hold water. The people of Burma have waited too long already for the justice and democracy they deserve. The United States should go after the Burmese military in a way they will notice: by cutting off the billion-plus dollars they rake in each year off the backs of the people of Burma.

Myra Dahgaypaw is a human rights activist, a former internally displaced person and refugee from Karen State in eastern Burma, and the Senior Partnership Officer for International Justice and Accountability at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.