Chris Sidoti: Targeted sanctions ‘essential’ in pressuring military back into barracks

August 4th, 2021  •  Category News
July 29, 2021

By Matt Davis and Anne Worthington

When Swe Win was shot through the leg while on holiday in the west of Myanmar in December 2019, his first thought was that it must have been a stray bullet.

The investigative journalist was in the car with his wife and daughter when a shot ricocheted off the car door near the handle.

“[It] came towards my neck,” he tells Foreign Correspondent from his new home in Melbourne, “then got redirected and hit my leg. I immediately thought this must be an accident.”

Then, as Swe was preparing to leave Myanmar with his family, he received a chilling message shattering any illusion that his shooting was a random event.

Just before boarding a flight from the capital Yangon to Australia, a military intelligence officer pulled him aside, warning it “was not an accident”.

The attack was never investigated but Swe believes the order to kill came from the top, from Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s powerful military.

A former political prisoner who spent seven years in jail, Swe is the editor and co-founder of Myanmar Now, a bilingual online news outlet.

In the years leading up to his assassination attempt, Swe and his team of 40 journalists had published a swathe of articles exposing the Burmese military’s vast and shadowy business empire.

One article about the business interests of Min Aung Hlaing’s children had hit a nerve, undercutting the “selfless image” the military leaders tried to project, according to Swe.

“Our stories destroyed that sort of propaganda,” he says. “It’s about the level of corruption within the top echelon of the military establishment. So that infuriated the military generals.”

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, maintains a network of over a hundred business entities spanning most sectors of the nation’s economy, from mining to transport, tourism, telecommunications, banks and even beer.

It delivers hundreds of millions of dollars in cash into military coffers annually and has become a powerful factor in the military’s enduring grip on power in Myanmar.

Six months after the military launched a brutal coup to oust the civilian-led government, some observers are calling on the international community including Australia to ratchet up sanctions targeting the junta’s expansive business interests.

“We need to use every means possible to put pressure on the military to get back in the barracks, and the economic side of that is critical,” says Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti.

Uncovering a secret empire

In 2017, Sidoti was part of a United Nations fact-finding team tasked with uncovering evidence of the military’s abuse of Myanmar’s ethnic communities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya.

Sidoti says they found plenty of evidence of war crimes and possibly even genocide. Then they also uncovered something they weren’t looking for — the source of the military’s power.

As well as identifying business entities, the UN found 15 foreign companies engaged in joint ventures with military businesses and at least 44 others with some form of commercial ties with the Tatmadaw.

For Sidoti, it raised alarming questions about how much control the civilian government could wield over the cashed-up military.

“They were not dependent on the parliament for their funding but they had all these independent means of acquiring wealth for corruption, and also wealth for operations,” he said.

“It was impossible to see how the civilians could gain control over the military when the military had independent access to very substantial sums of money.”

After the UN team’s report was published, a covert activist group called Justice For Myanmar continued to document the true extent of the military’s business interests, with more than 130 business entities so far identified as linked to the generals.

Two opaque conglomerates are the key to the military’s wealth: Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEC) and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).

Justice For Myanmar conservatively estimates the two conglomerates, which are controlled by the military’s top brass with ultimate authority resting with Min Aug Hlaing, funnel at least $435 million to the military annually.

Since the coup, the military has also taken over control of the lucrative Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the state’s principal revenue earner forecast to generate more than $2 billion in 2021 to 2022.

Sidoti warns if that money falls into the hands of the military, it will further cement the Burmese military’s grip on power and allow it to continue to act with impunity.

“The military has been in a constant state of war with its own people for 70 years now,” he says. “And it’s been able to do this because of its economic wealth.”

A broken system

Thinzar Shunlei Yi knows first-hand just how tight the military’s grip on Myanmar has become. She grew up in a military family and was supportive of the Tatmadaw as a young child.

Then in her 20s, she became a prominent pro-democracy activist, campaigning against the military’s brutal treatment of ethnic minorities.

Before the coup, Thinzar Shunlei Yi presented a popular youth TV show.

When the military seized control of the country, shattering its young democracy, Thinzar Shunlei Yi took to the streets along with millions of others to protest.

“It was such a shocking time,” she says, “I never thought that it could happen, it was the worst nightmare I could ever have imagined.”

Led by Generation Z, the protesters called for the civilian government to be reinstated but within weeks their demands grew bolder.

“Many young people were dreaming of more than just restoring the civilian government, or to release the civilian leader, they are demanding a bigger future,” she told Foreign Correspondent from a secret location.

“They wanted to abolish the 2008 constitution. When the coup happened, it gave us space to reshape our future.”

The Tatmadaw has been the most powerful institution since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948 and has had unchecked control over the country’s political system ever since.

After ruling for nearly 50 years, in 2008 the military held a constitutional referendum, a step in its so-called “roadmap to democracy”.

The Green Book, as the constitution became known, preserved the military’s control over the government, guaranteeing it 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and giving it effective veto control over any constitutional reforms.

Apart from its economic wealth, the 2008 constitution also gave the military political power with complete control over three key ministries of Defence, Border Affairs and Home Affairs.

“The 2008 constitution was always the main root cause of the problems in the country,” says Thinzar Shunlei Yi.

“Because whenever we try to advocate to advance our freedoms … they control what should be there.”

In April, in response to the people’s demands, a new political force emerged to challenge the military’s reign.

The National Unity Government — currently in exile — is comprised of ousted MPs, leaders of anti-coup protests and members of ethnic minorities. It say it’s the answer to healing a divided country.

They have abolished the 2008 constitution, recognised the Rohingya and are calling for a federal democratic union.

Zin Mar Aung, a National League of Democracy candidate, was elected to parliament in the November 2020 elections and is now the Foreign Minister in the new government in exile and is also in hiding.

Having grown up under military dictatorship she spent nine years in solitary confinement after protesting peacefully against the military.

In her first television interview, she told Foreign Correspondent that there will be no compromise with the military.

“If we win, democracy wins,” she says. “If we lose, the authoritarian will win. It’s the last battle for us and for our country, whether we let the military win or the democracy win. We don’t want our new generation to be under such a brutal military government.”

Cutting off the cash

As democracy advocates and the National Unity Government continue to push for a political solution, Chris Sidoti says there’s another way to undercut the military’s power.

With more information now known about the Tatmadaw’s secretive business operations than before, he says targeted sanctions could help unravel its control.

The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada have all started implementing targeted sanctions against the military and senior generals.

However, Myanmar’s regional neighbours — its biggest foreign investors — have been slow to act.

Chris Sidoti is particularly scathing of Australia’s lack of action. He says the government imposed sanctions on a number of generals following the UN report but not against Min Aung Hlaing.

“I find it bizarre that after what happened on the 1st of February, there was any longer any excuse whatsoever for not sanctioning the criminal in chief and his deputy,” he says.

A government report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade published in June recommended the Australian government “further consider imposing targeted sanctions upon additional senior figures in the Tatmadaw and Tatmadaw-linked entities including MEC and MEHL”.

Another recommendation stated that “the Australian government formally engage with groups and individuals representing the legitimately-elected representatives of Myanmar … and the National Unity Government.”

Zin Mar Aung from the National Unity Government told Foreign Correspondent while some members of parliament had communicated with the National Unity Government, the Australian government had had limited dialogue.

“Australian government response is quite delayed and not enough pressure. We need to make clear that government is quite slow.”

The Australian government told the ABC “additional sanctions have not been ruled out” and that “Australian officials are engaging with representatives of the ‘National Unity Government’ and plan to continue doing so”.

While the international community remains divided on sanctions, the people of Myanmar are launching their own action to sever the military’s purse strings.

Apps like”Way Way Nay”, which translates to “stay away”, encourage consumers to boycott military affiliated products.

Within months of the coup, a mass boycott of Tatmadaw-affiliated beer saw sales plummet by up to 90 per cent, wiping an estimated US$1 billion off the value of its military-linked parent company Myanmar Brewery Limited.

Meanwhile, a nationwide civil disobedience movement led by doctors, teachers and civil servants have launched strikes and shut down public schools and hospitals.

Manny Maung, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the Burmese people understand that “they don’t want these criminals to profit” from money that should be helping run schools and hospitals.

“They do want to bring the economy down to its knees and they know what the consequences are,” says Manny Maung.

Since the coup, Swe Win’s team of journalists have gone into hiding in Myanmar, fearful of military reprisals, while he manages the team from exile.

Many journalists are still working covertly inside Myanmar like “underground operatives”, Swe says, shunning cameras in public and being careful to not openly conduct interviews.

The stakes are high, with more than 900 people including children killed by the military and thousands arrested, including more than 80 journalists.

“Our work is very dangerous,” Swe says. “We are trying to do as much as we can … to play our roles in fighting against the military rule and giving a more honourable — a more dignified life — for the future generations.”

Watch Foreign Correspondent’s #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar on YouTube.