By Alex Willemyns
The U.S. government will be able to engage directly with Myanmar’s government-in-exile and must develop a program of sanctions against the military junta that seized power in last year’s coup, according to a new law passed by Congress as part of a military spending bill.
The Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2022 – or BURMA Act – was passed by the Senate as part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday night, after the House passed the gargantuan annual spending package a week prior.
The act enables the United States to engage directly with groups opposing the junta, including the National Unity Government, National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and to provide non-lethal support to the People’s Defense Forces and Ethnic Armed Organizations in Myanmar.
It also forces the Biden administration to introduce a program of sanctions against the junta and its supporters, as well as anyone who has helped to undermine the country’s democratic institutions.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, on Dec. 8 said the BURMA Act was “a major victory for the people of Burma who are fighting for democracy” and “a critical step in holding the murderous Burmese military accountable.”
The law would add “targeted sanctions on those responsible for the coup, those responsible for committing human rights abuses, and the state-owned companies bankrolling the junta,” Meeks said.
The act was welcomed by Myanmar’s government-in-exile.
“The National Unity Government (NUG) and the pro-democracy forces of Myanmar applaud passage today by the US Congress of the Burma Act,” NUG Acting President Duwa Lashi La said in a statement on Friday, praising the mandate for more sanctions against the junta.
“This important law clearly sets out United States policy to support the people of Myanmar … and our allied organizations in our struggle against the junta for democracy, human rights, and justice,” he said.
Nicole Cochran, the Burma program officer at the United States Institute for Peace, told Radio Free Asia that one of the biggest impacts of the law would be in allowing U.S. authorities to engage with the anti-junta organizations hoping to restore civilian government.
“Historically, the U.S. has been precluded from engaging with these actors. The authorization is important because they will be a critical part of the solution to the current crisis,” Cochran said, adding the bill would also force “stability and coherence” to American sanctions.
“Without this legislation, the State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination could have created a comprehensive policy on Burma-related sanctions,” she said. “With this legislation, they will have to.”
Zachary Abuza, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College, said the BURMA Act represented “Congress’s way of forcing the administration’s hand,” which he said had been resisting introducing some sanctions “largely due to Thai pressure.”
In particular, he noted Thai opposition to sanctions on the junta’s Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise company, which the new law explicitly targets for sanctions by the administration in one section.
“In the 2022 NDAA, [Congress] pushed the administration to increase its contacts with the NUG, which it did,” Abuza said. “This act paves the way for more aid and assistance to the NUG, PDFs, and EAOs, but it’s really not clear how the administration will implement it.”
Abuza added it was not clear the bill would make a big difference in returning Myanmar to democracy, explaining that the U.S. government was “still not doing enough to cripple the regime economically”
“The sanctions have been inconsistent and insufficient,” he said. “The longer this conflict drags out, the more it favors the junta.”