GOLETA, California — The House of Representatives passed the Burma Act of 2021 in April 2022. The Senate has received the bill and the bill is currently waiting to be passed by the U.S. Senate. Since the coup d’état on February 1, 2021, during which the military overthrew the democratically elected government, Myanmar has struggled with a humanitarian crisis. Coupled with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the military takeover has led to a severe economic crisis. If passed, the Burma Act of 2021 will distribute millions of dollars worth of aid to directly support the reestablishment of Myanmar’s democracy and reduce internal conflict. Furthermore, this bill can benefit poverty in Myanmar by helping to stabilize and support civil society.
What is the Burma Act of 2021?
Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) introduced the bill on October 5, 2021. It was created in response to the continued violence and human rights violations in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The country’s internal conflict intensified in February 2021 when the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, under an “illegitimate and illegal coup,” overthrew the elected democratic government and secured vehement control of the country. Now operating with impunity, the Tatmadaw exhibits total power over civilians, holding 25% of parliamentary seats and controlling multiple government ministries.
The authoritarian military rule in Myanmar equates to a grave infringement of freedom and human rights. Tatmadaw leaders have imposed severe restrictions to undermine the Burmese people’s democratic rights to free expression, press, peaceful assembly and religion. The aggressive militaristic rule has led to massive arrests, with thousands of “civilians, activists, religious minorities and journalists” unlawfully detained. Over the period of a year, violence on the part of the Tatmadaw regime led to more than 1,500 deaths, with children making up about 100 of these deaths.
How Can the Act Benefit Poverty?
The bill will authorize the U.S. to provide Myanmar with millions in humanitarian aid in order to soothe its internal crisis. By alleviating social unrest and establishing peace, the bill will directly support civil society in Myanmar. The intent is to not only promote Myanmar’s transition to democracy and a civilian-led government but to eliminate the authoritarian military rule that aggravated the country’s ultimate economic downfall. The hope is that with the help of U.S. aid, Myanmar may regain a stable economy and lift more people out of poverty. The Burma Act of 2021 emphasizes the need to hold Myanmar’s military leaders and others involved accountable for their crimes against humanity.
The bill “calls for the U.S. to condemn the military coup” in Myanmar and instructs President Biden to impose sanctions on those responsible. If passed, the legislation also authorizes the U.S. to influence the United Nations to recognize and “hold accountable those responsible for the coup” as well. By using sanctions and other tactics to place pressure on the military, the military may bring an end to human rights violations and unlawful rule. The restoration of some form of democratic leadership makes the likelihood of economic prosperity in Myanmar greater.
The Burma Act of 2021 intends to support the institution of democratic values in Myanmar and aid in the return to democracy through financial aid. The bill authorizes more than $470 million in humanitarian assistance to be distributed over a five-year period.
Section 301 of the bill says financial support will go toward reinstating “civil society and independent media.” The bill details that the funding from the U.S. Department of State and USAID will go toward “safe houses” for democracy activists and civil society leaders “under threat of arrest or detention” as well as assistance for those individuals forced to flee to neighboring countries.
In addition, funds will provide direct aid and training to democracy activists and independent media in Myanmar, including $220.5 million to “civil society organizations and nongovernmental organizations led by members of ethnic and religious minority groups” in the region.
Will the Bill Hold Weight?
In 2011, Myanmar began a “gradual liberalization” with an eventual goal to slowly transition its government from military to civilian-run and its economy to a market-based one instead of a planned economy. Following its very first democratic elections in 2015, “modernization of economic and financial institutions and systems resulted in rapid economic growth.” The percentage of those living in poverty significantly dipped from 48% in 2005 to 25% in 2017.
With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing military rule, the World Bank predicts that the country’s poverty level is now double the pre-pandemic rate. Therefore, by supporting Myanmar’s gradual return to a civilian-led, democratic government and providing humanitarian aid that will go directly toward ceasing the country’s internal violence and unrest, the passing and authorization of the Burma Act of 2021 may lead to significant benefits for the Burmese civilians threatened by poverty.
– Ashley Kim