The report comes on the heels of the State Department’s announcement last month of travel bans against four Myanmar generals, including the armed forces’ commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, for their role in what has been called genocide of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
As the two-year anniversary of the coordinated attacks against the Rohingya approaches, with more than 800,000 people displaced and no end to the persecution or accountability for its perpetrators in sight, it is clear that the international community’s response has been inadequate and ineffective.
The military’s campaign of terror against the Rohingya people is merely the most dramatic example of its continued abuses, but it is far from the only one. Violence against the Kachin and other ethnic groups in Myanmar’s north has intensified since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government came into power in 2016. And new fighting with an emergent Rakhine ethnic armed group in recent months, in the same areas as the previous Rohingya violence, has led to further human rights abuses and an internationally condemned Internet blackout. Prospects for a nationwide peace agreement are as far away as ever.
Myanmar’s leaders could have used its epochal 2015 election, when voters gave a decisive victory to longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to shift toward civilian rule. But instead they tried to appease the military in the hopes of a nationwide peace agreement, and that opportunity was missed. Today, the armed forces remain all-powerful and unaccountable with the help of the 2008 constitution, which they designed to give them political and judicial independence from the civilian government.
The military also maintains its immense power through control of two large conglomerates and their subsidiaries. These “military companies” form the core of the web of economic interests outlined in the investigators’ report. It found that these networks generate off-budget revenue that strengthens the military’s autonomy from civilian rule while providing financial support for its operations. The report also found credible analysis that the armed forces and its officials “have a vested interest in armed conflict and violence as a way of maintaining their ability to capitalize on the conflict.” The generals have much to gain from continuing decades of war against minority groups. Conflict enables them to plunder the jade, ruby and timber resources in captured territory with few repercussions.
This U.N. report builds on previous recommendations by the investigative team, officially known as the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. Last year the investigators called for the International Criminal Court to try generals for war crimes and for economic isolation of the military; in May, they demanded that the international community suspend all ties with the Myanmar military.
This time the team goes a step further by providing a road map for governments to implement targeted sanctions against all of the military’s economic interests and for companies to ensure they are not supporting the military or complicit in its abuses. The report exposes in detail all the alleged companies owned by, affiliated and doing business with the armed forces.
The report identifies more than 140 domestic businesses it alleges are owned by or closely linked to the military conglomerates. Twenty-six of these subsidiary companies hold jade and ruby mining licenses in conflict areas, confirming previous reports documenting the military’s continuing role in the gemstone trade. The investigators also identify 59 foreign companies they allege to have close business ties to military companies, companies that hail from around the world. A majority are headquartered in the region, with companies from China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore leading the way.
The report also identifies 14 companies from seven different countries that it says have sold arms to the Myanmar government since 2016, including China, Russia and Israel, expanding the military’s ability to wage war on its own citizens.
The investigators’ recommendations are clear: Governments should impose targeted financial sanctions on senior military officials and on all military-affiliated businesses, in addition to enacting a comprehensive arms embargo. Private businesses should not do business with the military-linked businesses or businesses owned or controlled by military figures.
This does not mean that governments and businesses should cut all ties with Myanmar, which would likely harm the whole economy, as critics of sanctions often argue. By providing a detailed list of military companies and their affiliates, the investigative team allows sanctions to be targeted, thus reducing their broader impact. Moreover, it is clear that sanctioning the military companies, often opaquely governed and inefficient behemoths, would in the long term, open space in the economy for the burgeoning private sector to compete in areas currently dominated by the military.
These recommendations come at a moment when the international community is pondering how best to engage with Myanmar’s government after the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya and the failure to pursue peace with other minority groups. The United States, the European Union and the International Criminal Court are all considering actions against the perpetrators of the campaign of violence against the Rohingya.
Monday’s report offers a clear plan of action. Send the generals back to their barracks — and leave the economy to civilians.