Skip to content
Photographed in 2008, a man walks past a propaganda sign on behalf of Myanmar's ruling junta (Juls78 via Wikimedia Commons)

Why Haven’t Sanctions Stopped Atrocities in Myanmar?

Years of measures against Myanmar's junta have failed to improve the plight of Rohingya.

Words: Narayani Sritharan, Timmy Tasler
Pictures: Juls78

Testimonies from Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar routinely speak to the atrocities they endure. Take, for instance, the words of Rakhine state resident Rajuma to The New York Times: “They threw my baby into a fire.” During so-called “area clearance operations,” Myanmar’s military burned down her village, Tula Toli. When soldiers arrived the morning of Aug. 30, 2017, they separated and killed the village’s men and sent women and children to a nearby river. There, Rajuma said, soldiers took her 18-month-old baby, Muhammad Sadeque, and flung him into a fire. 

Seven years later, 18,000 have been raped, 24,000 have been killed, and 115,000 homes have been burned down, and the Rohingya remain in a remarkably dire position. Recent reports have documented harrowing anecdotes of Rohingya refugees facing sexual abuse in their perilous journey to Malaysia to escape Bangladeshi refugee camps rife with violence and hunger. Nearly one million Rohingya refugees remain stuck in Bangladesh. 

Although Bangladesh was initially sympathetic to the Rohingya plight, Bangladesh’s then-foreign minister declared in 2020 that the Rohingya must return to Myanmar “as soon as possible.” While the Rohingya desire to return home, past repatriation programs have failed as the Rohingya wish not to return to a country where they will be denied citizenship and face discrimination. 

In 2017, in response to atrocities of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya, the United States took a stance by sanctioning Myanmar military officials under the Global Magnitsky Act. Targeted officials were prohibited from obtaining a US visa, denied US financial services, and had their US assets frozen. US President Joe Biden’s administration followed these initial sanctions by imposing restrictions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and the Myanmar Gemstone Enterprise (MGE) to harm the junta’s natural resource revenue.  

Sanctions Are the “Wrong Answer”

But for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. It is apparent that US sanctions were wholly inadequate or the “wrong answer” to the problem of the Rohingya genocide. But why? Where did US sanctions go wrong? Could they ever be part of the right answer? 

First, it is important to recognize that US sanctions towards Myanmar were political and economic in nature. Although they targeted relevant political figures within Myanmar’s military and key sources of revenue, sanctions struggled to change social factors that facilitated the genocide, such as deep-seated anti-Rohingya racism. While Myanmar’s military carried out atrocities in the Rakhine region, the military had the support of nationalist Buddhist monks who actively supported and even incited violence against the Rohingya. Sanctions did not pressure these monks or their followers, who were sympathetic to their hate speech. 

Lack of International Coordination

Second, the lack of international coordination cushioned the impact of US sanctions on Myanmar. While the European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom followed on with US sanctions, they lacked the full support of the United Nations, with Russia and China refusing to sanction Myanmar. China took a particularly active role in protecting Myanmar by shooting down a Security Council resolution calling for a transparent investigation into human rights abuses within Myanmar. The Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) also balked at holding Myanmar accountable, with Vietnam even helping Myanmar circumvent international jet fuel sanctions. 

It is apparent that US sanctions were wholly inadequate or the ‘wrong answer’ to the problem of the Rohingya genocide.

Thirdly, Myanmar’s government structure is well-insulated from foreign pressure compared to democratic governments. The military’s absolute power allows them to repress opposition groups while implementing unpopular policies to preserve their revenue and power. Examples include controversial tax measures the junta put into place in 2023 that increased the income tax of healthcare workers and required both restaurants and nightclubs to obtain costly entertainment licenses. Instead of bearing the full brunt of US sanctions, Myanmar’s military junta was able to shift the economic burden from its own shoulders to those of its citizens.       

Time for Reevaluation

Sanctions alone will not and have not resulted in meaningful outcomes for the Rohingya. Given the complex social dynamics at play, international spoilers, and the structure of Myanmar’s government, the US needs to reevaluate the role sanctions play in its foreign policy towards Myanmar. If the US is serious about pressuring Myanmar’s junta, it could afford to take a stronger stance in supporting resistance groups fighting the junta, especially considering the junta’s critically weak position

However, it is important to realize that harming Myanmar’s military is not the same as achieving better outcomes for Rohingya victims. A more direct approach could include expanding resettlement programs for the Rohingya or even engaging with ASEAN states to pressure the junta into creating a more equal legal system for the Rohingya. 

Perhaps there is even a future for sanctions in the form of a reparations fund that would funnel frozen assets to struggling Rohingya groups. By realizing our current framework for international sanctions is insufficient, we can take a step forward in achieving a more complete and effective justice for the Rohingya.

Narayani Sritharan, Timmy Tasler

Dr. Narayani Sritharan is a research fellow at the Global Research Institute at William & Mary. She is also a steering committee member and co-founder of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ). Timmy Tasler is an Economics major at the College of William & Mary. They’ve previously worked with American Public Square (APS), a non-profit based in Kansas City, Missouri devoted to creating productive and civil political discourse. Timmy is currently completing research about Multi-Level Marketing schemes and why current legislation has failed to protect consumers. They also play intercollegiate Table-Tennis for the College of William & Mary.

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.