Britain sanctions six more Myanmar coup leaders as Facebook and Instagram ban military

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Nicola Smith
·5 min read
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Anti-coup protesters shout slogans in Yangon, Myanmar - AP Photo
Anti-coup protesters shout slogans in Yangon, Myanmar - AP Photo

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has announced further sanctions against members of the Myanmar military, increasing pressure on the junta as it was banned from Facebook and Instagram

Six more military figures of the State Administration Council face sanctions for serious human rights violations on top of the 19 previously listed by the UK, the Foreign Office said.

Britain’s sanctions will ban the six individuals from travelling to the UK and will prevent businesses and institutions from dealing with their funds or economic resources in this country.

The Department for International Trade will also lead on work to ensure British businesses are not trading with Myanmar's military-owned companies, the Government said.

Mr Raab said: "Today's package of measures sends a clear message to the military regime in Myanmar that those responsible for human rights violations will be held to account, and the authorities must hand back control to a government elected by the people of Myanmar."

The army seized power earlier this month, alleging fraud in the November election won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy party, and detained them.

The move sparked weeks of ongoing mass demonstrations against the military regime (see video below). The protests have been largely peaceful although scuffles broke out in Yangon on Thursday after pro-military supporters stabbed one man and threw rocks at anti-coup demonstrators banging pots and pans.

The social media ban is the latest step in Facebook taking a more proactive role globally in the policing of content on its services, after an independent oversight board was set up last year to deal with the toughest questions of freedom of speech.

Last week, the company deleted the Facebook page of the military, which is known as the Tatmadaw.

“Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban. We believe the risks of allowing the Tatmadaw [military] on Facebook and Instagram are too great,” said Rafael Frankel, Director of Policy, APAC Emerging Countries in a blogpost.

Facebook has for years had a fractious relationship with Myanmar, where roughly half of the country’s 53 million population use the site. For many it is synonymous with the internet and vital to communications and doing business.

Just days after the coup, Myanmar’s generals moved to temporarily shut down Facebook for the sake of “stability” after it became one of the most popular online channels for the public to express their resistance to military rule.

However, the site, which plays a huge part in the country’s official discourse, has been embroiled in controversy in the recent past.

In 2018, UN human rights experts investigating a possible genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority accused Facebook of playing a role in spreading hate speech.

The company admitted it was too slow to act in preventing misinformation and hate in the country, and hired Burmese speakers to review posts for hate speech.

Riot police stand guard on a road, behind a street mural of the protesters' three finger salute - YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images
Riot police stand guard on a road, behind a street mural of the protesters' three finger salute - YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images

It took action later that year to remove the pages of 20 military leaders, including coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing, for their role in “severe human rights violations.” The military leadership had overseen an ethnic cleansing campaign that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.

Since the start of the coup, Facebook has treated the situation in Myanmar as an “emergency.”

On Thursday it said it would also prohibit Tatmadaw-linked commercial entities from advertising on the platform.

In its statement it justified the decision because of the “clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar, where the military is operating unchecked and with wide-ranging powers,” referring to the military’s history of “behaviour violations.”

Facebook’s action is the latest escalation of international pressure being brought to bear on the junta amid global condemnation of the ousting of the democratically-elected government.

However, despite threats by western capitals to step up sanctions against the regime, analysts say the reaction of China and other regional neighbours to the coup may hold more sway in persuading the generals to back down.

In recent days Indonesia and Thailand have taken a proactive role in trying to form a consensus among the so far divided response from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a grouping of ten countries, some of whom have heavily invested in Myanmar and who tend towards non-intervention.

Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, met on Wednesday in Bangkok with Don Pramudwinai, her Thai counterpart and Wunna Maung, Myanmar's military-appointed foreign minister, for talks to try to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis.

She is set to hold discussions on Thursday with Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, and Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General.

Champa Patel, director of the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House, said Indonesia’s efforts to broker a solution should be welcomed but that there were huge risks involved.

“Trying to placate the military by agreeing to new elections risks giving their claims legitimacy when there is little evidence that there were election irregularities,” she warned.

Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based Southeast Asia specialist, agreed but said it was important for regional countries to respond.

“The military don’t really care what the UN has to say. It’s been shamed before. But it will listen more carefully to the voices of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Singaporeans, or the major investors in the country,” he said.

“It’s important that countries like Singapore, Japan, Korea, take a hard look at their business interests in the country because that’s what will start to pressure the regime.”