A field was strewn with bodies and body parts. As many as 110 were killed, including 30 children, and more than 50 were wounded in the latest act of carnage by the Myanmar military against their own population.
The April 11 attack on an office opening ceremony in the strife-torn Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township is another junta war crime that looks set to go unanswered by the international community, beyond condemnation from the United Nations, Western governments and rights groups.
International vows to hold the regime accountable can be upheld by focusing on the Myanmar military’s increasing reliance on long-range artillery strikes and air assaults.
The use of planes and helicopters is increasing, with new jets and rotary wing aircraft imported from both Russia and China.
There were at least 600 air attacks by the military between February 2021 and January 2023, a tacit acknowledgment that the Tatmadaw, as the feared armed forces are known in Burmese, is unable to deploy forces in large parts of the country. Light Infantry Divisions, which do most of the fighting, are undermanned and spread thin.
The use of jet fighters and helicopter gunships has only increased as the military is bogged down in a multi-front war, against the opposition National Unity Government, their roughly 300 People’s Defense Forces, and allied ethnic resistant organizations. The military has put 47 of 330 townships under martial law, a sign of its tenuous control.
Frustrated with military setbacks, the leadership of the State Administrative Council, the junta’s formal name, has begun to relieve officers from command and increased tactics designed to terrorize the population into submission.
Jet fuel sanctions
The international community could easily do something. You cannot fly jet planes without jet fuel, and Myanmar is 100 percent dependent on imports.
In a November 2022 report, Amnesty International concluded that foreign firms could not claim they were simply selling A1 aviation fuel to civilian jetliners, as the military controlled the entire supply chain. Once the fuel was in the tanks in Thaliwa port, no one could not ensure that it was not being diverted to military aircraft.
The primary supplier of jet fuel to the country was Puma Energy, the Singaporean-based subsidiary of the Swiss firm Trafigura. Puma established two joint ventures in Myanmar. The first, Puma Energy Asia Sun, was established in 2014. Its local partner, Asia Sun Energy was established in 2013 by U Win Kyaw Kyaw Aung who has close military ties. Puma owned 80 percent of the 91,000m3 jet fuel storage tank at Thaliwa port.
Its second venture was a minority stake in National Energy Puma Aviation Services, a joint venture established in 2015 with the state-owned Myanmar Petrochemical Enterprise, which distributed and stored jet fuel at airports. Myanmar Petrochemical Enterprise is responsible for oil and gas exploration and domestic gas transmission.
Puma announced it sold its ownership stake in the first firm to Asia Sun Energy in October 2022. The sale of its stake in the second firm is less clear. Some reports claim that Asia Sun Energy also purchased Puma’s shares in the distribution venture.
On March 24 the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Asia Sun Energy and Asia Sun Trading Company, which purchased foreign jet fuel, in an attempt to hurt the military’s war-fighting capabilities.
However, the U.S. Government seems to have been unaware that the company had been doing business as, Shoon Energy after purchasing Puma’s shares in Puma Energy Asia Sun. And it’s not clear if the US sanctions apply to the unnamed Shoon Energy.
Things like this happen because in a little noticed move in September 2022, Myanmar’s military government shut down public access to a key part of their Myanmar Companies Online (MyCO) corporate registry in order to shield the shareholdings of the senior leadership and their families, to cover up the redistribution of seized assets, and to safeguard the establishment of front companies to evade international sanctions.
Indian, Thai or Singaporean firms that have sold jet fuel to Myanmar in the past, who may be fearful of doing business with sanctioned companies, need only to establish a new corporate front or subsidiary. The ability to do due diligence has plummeted.
Even if the international community sanctioned more import and distribution firms, many foreign partners would easily be able to skirt sanctions through new corporate fronts.
So what can be done?
Earth Rights International and Global Witness, in a February 2023 report about the shortcomings of the international sanctions regime on Myanmar, suggest a page out of the Russia sanctions playbook: namely suspending third-party services, including insurance and financial services to the companies that own the vessels involved in shipping aviation fuel to Myanmar.
In December 2022, the United States and the European Union banned protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs from providing insurance to any Russian vessel that was carrying Russian oil above the $60 a barrel price cap.
P&I clubs specialize in providing insurance for maritime, large risk, heavy cargo and container vessels. No ship can enter a port and on- or off-load goods without P&I insurance. This is particularly true for tankers carrying oil, due to the enormous financial costs of oil spills.
There is nothing stopping the international community from imposing similar sanctions in Myanmar.
A rapacious Indian or Thai seller of jet fuel may have an incentive to sell jet fuel to the junta as they bomb innocent civilians. But if the shipping firms can’t get the P&I insurance that they require, there’s no way to get the jet fuel to the Thilawa terminal.
Lloyds of London, the premier maritime insurance firm, has warned about increasing Russian ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions. This, too, could happen with Myanmar, but it does raise the costs, and the potential for being caught and ensuing sanctions could be enough of a deterrent for some shippers.
Of course that won’t stop the overland supply of jet fuel to Myanmar. But overland border trade is less certain than in the past. The route from Chin State is no longer secure, and overland trade from Bangladesh is conditioned on the tenuous November 2022 ceasefire with the Arakan Army.
China’s main supply lines into Myanmar go through Shan State whose security landscape is quickly evolving as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Defense Alliance Army are engaged in more frequent clashes with the Tatmadaw and are increasing their training and support to the NUG’s forces. Finally, the pro-SAC Border Guards Forces along the Thai border are increasingly under attack, as seen in recent fighting around Shwe Kokko.
The latest bombing should be a clarion call for the international community to sanction the sale of jet fuel to a regime that is waging an air war against its own population. But smart sanctions, such as proscribing P&I insurance to vessels carrying jet fuel to Myanmar, is the most effective way to save innocent lives. [RFA/NS]