US places sanctions on Myanmar’s defence ministry, banks

Military has used foreign sources, including Russian entities under sanctions, to purchase and import arms, Washington says.

A military parade in Naypyidaw. Military officers are in rows of jeeps in front with weaponry in vehicles behind
Washington accuses Myanmar's defence ministry of importing goods and materiel worth at least $1bn since the 2021 coup [File: Aung Shine Oo/AP Photo]

The United States has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s defence ministry and two banks used by the military regime to buy arms and other goods from foreign sources.

The US Treasury Department said in a statement on Wednesday that the military has relied on foreign sources, including Russian entities under sanctions, to buy and import arms, equipment and raw materials to manufacture weapons to support its “brutal repression”.

Washington accused Myanmar’s defence ministry of importing goods and materiel worth at least $1bn since the 2021 coup, in which military leaders seized power from the democratically elected government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The state-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank (MICB), were also hit with sanctions. The Treasury said they allowed revenue-generating state-owned enterprises, including Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, access to international markets.

The banks receive and transmit foreign currencies.

“Burma’s military regime has leveraged state-run access to international markets to import weapons and materiel, including from sanctioned Russian entities, to continue its violence and oppression,” the Treasury’s undersecretary for “terrorism” and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in the statement.

The US and other Western nations have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Myanmar’s generals since they seized power in a 2021 coup and cracked down with force on mass protests.

The crisis in the country has since deepened with the military accused of indiscriminate air attacks and laying waste to civilian villages. Anti-coup forces, meanwhile, have organised into People’s Defence Forces, in some cases working alongside ethnic armed groups that have been fighting the military for decades.

A spokesman for Myanmar’s military regime said ahead of the US announcement that it was not worried about any new sanctions.

Zaw Min Tun told the state media channel MWD on Tuesday that the country has experienced sanctions before and it will not face losses if there are new ones on state-owned banks.

He said the US was “just doing this to cause difficulties in economics and politics”.

“These kinds of things will cause unnecessary delays while we walk towards the multiparty democratic system.”

The Bangkok Business News cited Thai sources as saying the sanctions would hit Thailand and other countries in the region financially because of their connections with the banks.

The US embassy said it has regular conversations with the Thai government on neighbouring Myanmar, including how to mitigate the impact of any sanctions on Thailand or other countries.

Experts say the sanctions on the banks, while short of targeting gas projects that are a big source of revenue for the military administration, could have an impact on its ability to fund its war against ethnic groups and rebellions.

A February report by campaign group EarthRights International said the two banks were Myanmar’s “foreign currency treasuries” and were now under military control.

It said the military authorities rely on foreign currency to buy jet fuel, parts for small arms production and other supplies that cannot be purchased with the Myanmar kyat.

“As a result, sanctions against MFTB and MICB could contribute substantially to cutting off the junta’s access to foreign currency, especially if combined with strong enforcement,” it said.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters