European leaders were quick to condemn the coup in Myanmar. Now the EU needs to follow up with concrete actions, writes Paul Donowitz.
Paul Donowitz is a campaign leader working on resource governance and anti-corruption norms at Global Witness
The world watched in horror on 1 February as the Myanmar people’s decades-long struggle to move from military dictatorship to a fragile, quasi-democratic government tragically came full circle.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to peacefully protest against the military takeover, despite intermittent internet blackouts, ongoing arrests, the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, teargas, and even some reports of live ammunition that left one young woman gravely injured.
European leaders were quick to condemn the coup, calling the attempt to forcibly overturn the will of the people of Myanmar unacceptable, illegal and against the principles of democracy.
Last week, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament that it was “crucial to act swiftly, strongly and in coordination with our partners”, including the United States. But the EU has not yet followed through with concrete actions.
With the US escalating its response and President Biden seeking to earn back America’s leadership position on the global stage, the EU needs to demonstrate its own commitment to defending democratic values and human rights, and ensure that it does not fall behind as a global leader.
The policies it adopts in the aftermath of the Myanmar coup presents a key test of this and it must step up to its global responsibilities by responding with actions, not just words.
US President Joe Biden has moved swiftly, announcing an Executive Order that paves the way for immediate targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s generals.
A first round of targets will be identified this week focusing on the military’s economic interests, while $1 billion in assets held in the US will also be frozen to prevent the military from accessing reserves belonging to the democratically elected government.
This sends a clear message to Myanmar’s military that its coup is unlawful, while limiting harm to civilians, who will continue to receive US support in areas such as healthcare and humanitarian aid.
The EU needs to join the US in showing those responsible for the coup that there is a price to pay for their outrageous actions.
It can do this by imposing targeted sanctions on the military and their business interests while maintaining development assistance and the Everything But Arms trade preferences that allow most products from Myanmar into the EU tariff-free, to avoid affecting the broader population.
Going after the military’s vast economic interests through targeted sanctions is crucial in undermining their ability to sustain power.
The military dominates whole sectors of Myanmar’s economy, from the multi-billion dollar jade and gemstone sector to the market for beer and alcohol, and is active in a wide range of sectors including banking, tourism, real estate, and transportation.
All this revenue enables the military to resist civilian oversight, consolidate control, enrich themselves and carry out widespread and ongoing human rights abuses against the people of Myanmar, including the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
The EU has previously imposed sanctions and travel bans on a few military leaders, but needs to go further by heeding the calls of Myanmar civil society and the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
This means placing sanctions on all senior military officers, those officers in the military-formed government, the families and business interests of all sanctioned officers, and the directors of military-owned companies and their subsidiaries.
These sanctions must also include the powerful military conglomerates Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited.
As Myanmar’s third-largest trade partner, Europe’s response to the coup matters. As well as imposing targeted sanctions, it needs to build on initial discussions with the G7, as well as countries in the Indo-Pacific region which have extensive commercial and political influence with the military, to encourage them to follow suit and coordinate a strong and effective international response.
It is more critical than ever that the EU remains engaged with local actors in Myanmar. Along with allies and international institutions, it should redouble its support to human rights defenders, civil society, independent media and vulnerable populations like the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, Rohingya and other ethnic communities who are most at risk and have the greatest needs during this time.
By pursuing a multi-pronged approach, which combines targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military’s economic interests, support to communities and civil society and robust diplomatic engagement and international coordination, the EU can send a clear signal to the people of Myanmar that it is on their side and that assaults on duly elected governments will be met with firm resolve.
Its actions will also demonstrate that it remains a leading voice for democracy and human rights around the world.