Sanctions on Military Coup: To Do or Not to Do?

by Douaa Qadadia
Image: The Foreign Photographer / Flickr

What’s happening in Myanmar? 

On the night of February 1st, the Burmese military, under the leadership of Min Aung Hlaing, seized control of the country. They then accused the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in the recent democratic election as a fraud. She was detained, among many other Burmese politicians. Upon her detention, she wrote a letter published on the National League of Democracy party (NLD) facebook page, addressed to the Burmese community to protest against the coup, while also claiming that this military coup will lead the country into dictatorship. 

In the morning of February 1st, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing became the de facto leader of Myanmar. Since then, troops have been patrolling, blocking off the streets in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw as well as the country’s biggest city, Yangon. Most communication to the rest of the world has ceased. TV channels, both international and domestic, have stopped broadcasting; internet, phone services and any other means to communicate the terrors occurring on the streets are disrupted. A one year state of emergency was declared, along with a night-time curfew.

How have the people reacted?

People have taken their anger and frustration to the streets but were met with lethal suppression. Troops encountered peaceful demonstrations with riot gears, and used water cannons and live ammunition to dissipate the protestors. There have been devastating reports on a young woman getting shot in cold blood without having posed any threat. The people of Myanmar also face tyrannical detentions, and the media confronted multiple intimidations.

What now? 

The coup in Myanmar is disheartening and poses serious threats to the innocent people living there. Many believe the international community should act, but how effective would that be in stopping the military dictatorship in its tracks? 

The UN has released multiple statements condemning the vile actions of the military, but has not committed to any real engagement. There have been talks of imposing sanctions, specifically, trade sanctions. But just how much good will this do for Myanmar? 

Do sanctions work?

A recent study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that economic sanctions are only successful 34% of the time in achieving the given political goal. However, according to Newsweek, the success rate is heavily influenced by the type of changes that are being sought after. A direct quote from the site indicated that “Regime change or efforts to disrupt a military adventure fare less well.” Another important factor of this is the party imposing such sanctions. The Biden administration already revealed its intentions to impose economic sanctions, however, this will likely result in Myanmar becoming economically and politically closer to China, and not have any significant impact on the regime. 

History of sanctions 

Sanctions have always been a popular tool used by the international community to force changes in other nations. A notorious example is Fidel Catro’s regime in Cuba. The United States imposed sanctions for over half a century, which did not cause any substantial change. According to Forbes: “More than a half-century of sanctions have not sparked a popular uprising, forced the Castros and allies from power, moderated the regime, delivered democracy, promoted economic liberalisation, cut regime ties with other communist systems, stopped foreign investment, or achieved much else of note.” 

However, there are multiple examples of sanctions that did work. One is the sanctions on Iran in 2015. After imposing sanctions, Iran agreed to negotiate its scaling back its nuclear weapons and activities.

Sanctions: Helpful or harmful?

There is no doubt that sanctions have worked in the past, but overwhelming evidence suggests that sanctions enforced in an attempt to remove an authoritarian regime from power don’t have any significant impact, and may instead cause harm to the country’s economy and affect the labour force. There needs to be international action to help the Myanmarese people, and sanctions may not be the way forward. The international community has to present a united front and force the military out of power, but sanctions are not the way to do it.

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