The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to cut off the gas for Myanmar’s military coup leaders

Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar's eastern Karen state on April 21.
Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar's eastern Karen state on April 21. (Handout/KNU Dooplaya District/AFP/Getty Images)
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AS THE conflict between Myanmar’s military and the country’s civilian population grows more acute — soldiers have been using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to clear barricaded streets — some are warning that the country could soon become Southeast Asia’s version of Syria, splintered and destroyed by civil war. But defeating the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces are known, by military means is not the objective of the political opposition, which recently named an alternative government. Rather, the resistance is centered on shutting down the country’s economy and denying the generals the revenue they need to sustain their coup.

Millions of people in Burma, as Myanmar is also known, have been making painful sacrifices to support what’s called the Civil Disobedience Movement. Government officials have refused to report to work, and strikes have paralyzed commerce. Boycotts of products produced by military companies have been widely observed; even sales of its locally produced beer have cratered. So effective has the movement been that U.N. and other international relief officials are warning that a collapsing economy may soon trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Nevertheless, the opposition persists. Its leaders see their tactics as the only way to force the military to restore the democratically elected civilian government.

It’s an uphill struggle, and it has a chance of succeeding only if it receives sufficient international support. Myanmar’s people can cut off the military’s beer money — but only the United States and other governments can stop the flow of dollars from lucrative exports of natural resources. The Biden administration has taken some significant steps in that direction: It sanctioned two military-owned conglomerates and a gem-mining enterprise, and this week it moved against companies that export pearls and timber. On Monday, the European Union also sanctioned the conglomerates.

U.S. and E.U. officials nevertheless have hesitated to move against the military’s biggest cash stream, which comes from the export of natural gas. In partnership with U.S. multinational Chevron and France’s Total, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) earns close to $500 million annually from exports, according to estimates by outside analysts, including $350 million from Thailand’s state-owned power company.

Chevron and Total have resisted pressure, including from more than 400 Myanmar civil society organizations, to cease authorizing payments to MOGE. The companies have offered an array of excuses, including claims that if they cease production, Myanmar’s cities would lose power, and the military would retaliate against workers. But a recent letter from the civil society groups pointed out that gas production and deliveries need not stop; the companies need only cease allowing the transfer of profits to MOGE and the military.

The Biden administration can break this impasse by enacting sanctions on MOGE. These could be tailored to allow Total and Chevron to continue gas production — provided they do not transfer profits. Alternatively, the Treasury department could sanction the bank accounts in Thailand and Singapore that MOGE uses to collect royalties. (Some of these come from China, via a South Korean company.) The Tatmadaw seized power in part so that it could monopolize the wealth Burma’s natural resources generate. Take that away, and the generals may finally accept that their coup has failed.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Rising up with nonviolent resistance in Myanmar

The Post’s View: New massacres by Myanmar’s military demand a tougher U.S. response

Maung Zarni: The Myanmar military is destroying its public image. Politics won’t be the same.

Frida Ghitis: Myanmar’s people are fighting back — even as the military guns them down

The Post’s View: The people of Myanmar have been robbed of their democracy. But they aren’t giving up.

Josh Rogin: Biden is doing the right things on Myanmar. But will it matter?