Border Guard Police stand guard in Rakhine State. (AFP)

Sanctions against Tatmadaw leaders would be counterproductive

The Rakhine crisis has put the Tatmadaw under the spotlight but there’s a danger that targeted sanctions against its leaders could have extreme consequences.


REPORTS EMERGED last week that the European Union was planning to suspend ties with senior Tatmadaw leaders in protest at what the bloc called the “disproportionate use of force” during the security operation in Rakhine State. A document seen by AFP said EU ambassadors had agreed, in a decision due to be signed off on October 16, to suspend invitations to the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief and senior military officers and review all practical defence cooperation with Myanmar.

The document also said the EU “may consider additional measures” if the crisis did not improve, an apparent reference to economic sanctions. The humanitarian crisis in northern Rakhine has also been discussed at the United Nations Security Council and at congressional hearings in the United States. At both gatherings it was acknowledged that the National League for Democracy government and the Tatmadaw were ruling the country in parallel.

Is the move by the EU to sanction Tatmadaw leaders the right strategy to achieve a solution to the crisis in northern Rakhine and improve democracy and human rights in Myanmar?

We first need to consider the impact of the international sanctions imposed on Myanmar under military rule. Before the transition to democracy began in 2011, the military government was notorious as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The junta ruled by force and fear. Its abuses included persecuting activists, crushing dissent, bullying ethnic minorities, forcing villagers to be porters or human mine sweepers in conflict zones, and recruiting child soldiers.

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The economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the 1990s by the European Union and the United States – and lifted in 2013 and 2016 respectively – had little or no effect on the Tatmadaw government.

Following the appointment of Min Aung Hlaing as commander-in-chief in 2011 and the installation that year of the Thein Sein government, the Tatmadaw started to show welcome signs of reform. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by the government and eight ethnic armed groups in October 2015 was made possible because of an unprecedented willingness of the Tatmadaw to make allowances to advance the peace process. It was progress in the peace process, as well legislative reform and the release of political prisoners, that led to a gradual easing of sanctions and increased engagement by the US and EU with the government and the Tatmadaw.

Engagement with the international community strengthened considerably after the NLD took office last year, giving Myanmar its first civilian government in more than 50 years.

The crisis over northern Rakhine that has soured ties between Myanmar and Western countries has put the Tatmadaw under a spotlight.

The reasons for this include the Tatmadaw’s insistence that the Muslims in Rakhine who identify as Rohingya are illegal immigrants. Because they are not among the 135 officially-recognised “national races”, the Tatmadaw believes that accepting their presence in Rakhine would amount to a breach of sovereignty. At a meeting with US ambassador Mr Scot Marciel on October 11, Min Aung Hlaing blamed the problem on British colonialists. “The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists,” he told Marciel. “They are not the natives, and the records prove that they were not even called Rohingya but just Bengalis during the colonial period,” Min Aung Hlaing said, according to his account of the meeting on Facebook.

Many countries that were colonised have experienced problems similar to the situation in Rakhine. Some countries have solved the problems through understanding, wisdom and far-sightedness and the Tatmadaw must be encouraged to learn from their experiences.

The Tatmadaw’s response to the extremist attacks in northern Rakhine on August 25 and October 9 last year have attracted international condemnation. Its actions should be reviewed and its mistakes pointed out.

The Tatmadaw’s decision to appoint a committee headed by Lieutenant-General Aye Win should therefore be welcomed. Announcing the appointment of the committee on October 13, Min Aung Hlaing said it would examine whether troops had followed the military code of conduct during the security operation launched after the August 25 attacks. The committee’s findings would be released to the public, the statement said.

It is important for the Tatmadaw to show the world that it is addressing accusations of widespread human rights abuses.

There is a danger that if targeted sanctions are imposed on the Tatmadaw it might respond in an extreme way that could be detrimental for both Rakhine and Myanmar.

The sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the past by Western countries were a bitter experience. Instead of considering sanctions against Tatmadaw leaders, the EU and other Western countries should do everything possible to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. They should also encourage the reform of the Tatmadaw.

That is the best way forward to a lasting solution in Rakhine and to promote democracy and human rights in Myanmar.

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