The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The steps the West must take to save Myanmar

Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, sitting third from right, former president Win Myint and Myo Aung, the former Naypyitaw Council chairman, appear at a court Monday in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, sitting third from right, former president Win Myint and Myo Aung, the former Naypyitaw Council chairman, appear at a court Monday in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (Reuters Tv/Mrtv Via Reuters)

WHILE MUCH of the world was preoccupied with the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the bloody unraveling of Myanmar under the military regime that seized power in February continued to accelerate. Last week, reports emerged of new fighting in Chin state, near the border with India, where local people formed a militia to resist the new regime and killed several troops. The response of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, was characteristic: It attacked the town of Mindat using heavy artillery, shot civilians, including a 10-year-old girl, and drove thousands of people into the nearby hills and forest, where they are struggling to survive.

Most of the resistance to the coup against the elected civilian government has taken the form of civil disobedience. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, transportation workers and other government employees are still refusing to return to work, and much of commerce in Burma, as Myanmar is also known, has shut down. But ethnic minority groups that have previously fought the regime, such as the Kachin, have returned to combat, and some others, like the Chin, are beginning to take up arms. Thousands are fleeing the country, including to India and Thailand.

The military junta, meanwhile, escalates its repression. By the end of last week, it had killed more than 800 people and arrested more than 5,000, according to independent reports. The country’s former leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is among those being held; on Monday, she was brought to court to face trumped-up charges. More than 70 journalists have been detained, including two U.S. citizens; one, Danny Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, was seized Monday at the international airport in Yangon.

The unmitigated brutality has provoked a relatively strong international response. The United States and European Union sanctioned two large conglomerates that the military controls, along with gemstone and timber enterprises. The Biden administration has targeted a number of senior military officials, and last week it added the State Administrative Council, the body the military formed to rule the country. But Western governments are still holding back from measures that could cripple the regime and possibly force it to retreat. They have not sought an arms embargo from the U.N. Security Council, and they have not tried to cut off the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Myanmar state accounts from oil and gas exports.

Western diplomats worry that China might block any U.N. curb on arms sales. But Beijing appears concerned about the mounting violence inside Myanmar, some of which is near its border; it should be pushed to at least threaten an embargo. Western energy giants Chevron and Total are resisting a ban on remittances to the regime. But they need not be the implementers of sanctions. The money flow could be stopped by targeting the banks that transmit the money, most of which comes from Thailand, which is the biggest purchaser of Myanmar’s gas.

Leaders of the Group of Seven will soon gather for a summit, and Myanmar should be on the agenda. President Biden, who has made defense of democracy a top priority of his administration, should press his fellow leaders to impose the most effective punishment on the generals: cutting off their supplies of arms and dollars.

Read more:

Leonard Rubenstein and Sandra Mon: The generals in Myanmar are waging war on doctors and nurses

Thet Htar Mya Yee San: I’m a Myanmar diplomat. Here’s why I refuse to recognize the coup.

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

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

The Post’s View: It’s time to cut off the gas for Myanmar’s military coup leaders