Myanmar’s coup is an opportunity for Biden to show new foreign policy; break with past mistakes

As tens of thousands of Myanmar’s citizens pour onto the streets of that nation’s major cities day after day in protest of a return to military rule, a new U.S. presidential Administration watches from afar. 

Restrictions on communications from within the country, including on-and-off access to the internet, adds to the uncertainty as to what is really happening on the ground in Myanmar. #WhatishappeninginMyanmar is itself a hashtag on blocked social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Career diplomat and now U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Thomas Vajda had only presented his credentials to now deposed Myanmar President U. Win Myint on January 19.

One thing is clear. A violent crackdown by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is formally known, on what have been peaceful protests and a failure to free high-profile detainees would likely spur a return to U.S. sanctions.

As I first wrote in the Nikkei Asia [Read More Here], President Biden’s rhetoric and commitment to human rights and the messy reality of democracy worldwide are now being put to the test in Asia.

The news came as evening fell, January 31, in Washington—early morning, February 1,  in Southeast Asia—that a military coup was unfolding in Myanmar, a nation of some 55 million people, also known as Burma.  

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi as well as dozens of national and regional leaders along with prominent allies had been detained. As the day unfolded images of military vehicles on the streets of Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and its largest city, Yangon, emerged. The Tatmadaw was now front-and-center and fully back in charge, after having lost patience from wielding power behind the scenes.

President Win Myint, an ally of Suu Kyi ally, was among those first reported detained. Vice-president Myint Swe, a former general, then reportedly handed over power to Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In subsequent days, Win Htein, a key ally of Suu Kyi, and others would also be detained as the military sought to quell unrest after seizing power.

Tensions had been building between the military and Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) after she had helped lead the party to a landslide general elections victory on November 8. The new parliament was to have convened Monday, February 1, and rumors over the weekend of an impending coup would prove true. 

Less than a decade after the military had launched a transition to democracy, direct army rule was back. The earlier move toward civilian rule was viewed by the then Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as one of its success stories, and led to an end to Myanmar’s isolation from the West. 

Now, as Myanmar’s once again military leaders make clear their intent to rule “for at least a year” while addressing issues of “election fraud,” the Biden Administration has a number of difficult questions that it must ask itself. 

A Red Line in Syria Matters

First, to what degree are Biden and his newly confirmed secretary of state, Antony Blinken, willing to assess and learn from the actions and mistakes of past Administrations, including those of the Obama Administration?

While many of Biden’s nominees to fill top government posts have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the outlines are clear when it comes to Asia policy. And if people are indeed policy, some have characterized the makings of a “third Obama term.” 

This includes the return of not just now Secretary of State Blinken but also the return of Kurt Campbell, Obama’s assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as somewhat of an “Asia policy czar.”  Campbell was a key part of Obama’s “opening to Burma,” under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Also back is Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor. Sullivan, who reportedly briefed Biden on the recent coup, served in the Obama Administration as deputy assistant to the president and national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden. Sullivan also served as director of policy planning at the Department of State and deputy chief of staff to Secretary Clinton.

Biden has issued a statement seeking the release of all detainees, calling out the Myanmar coup as a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” and raising the prospects of working with partners “ to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition.”

Biden also has said the coup has necessitated an “immediate review of [U.S.] sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”

An initial White House press statement declared the “United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

Whether of China or North Korea or in this its first test—Myanmar—it will be important that the Biden Administration in ratcheting up the rhetoric not find itself in another “red line” situation of its own making.

U.S.-Asia interests are never well-served by any U.S. Administration that is “more bark than bite.”

Famously, as part of the Obama Administration’s Syria policy, the then U.S. president laid out a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Obama’s subsequent failure to act when Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad crossed that line led to growing doubts about the will and the reality behind the Obama Administration’s rhetorical “pivot to Asia.”

Secretary of State Blinken—a one-time deputy national security advisor and deputy Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton—would ultimately acknowledge the Obama Administration “failed” in Syria though “not for want of trying.” Therein lies a lesson for the Biden team that “trying” will also be not enough if rhetoric and reality do not match when it comes to Myanmar policy.  

Building Back Better Means a Break from the Past

Second, in pushing for a return to a pre-coup status, to what degree are Biden and Blinken able to lay the foundations to “build back better” when it comes to Myanmar?

Simply stated, the old normal in Myanmar was far from great.  

Over the course of a decade of democratization, Suu Kyi has gone from revered to reviled. And in 2019, Suu Kyi’s defense at the International Court of Justice—the United Nations’ top court—of her government against accusations of genocide against the Rohingya community, saying such allegations are “incomplete and misleading,” only solidified her fall from grace in the eyes of much of the West.

A brutal military crackdown on the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community has led to some 671,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing targeted violence and human rights violations in Myanmar since August 2017, according to UNHCR

Under the Trump Administration, the United States had for the most part shied away from tougher actions against Myanmar, including the reimposition of wider sanctions or labeling the actions by the Myanmar government as “genocide,” as opposed to “ethnic cleansing.” This changed somewhat with the Trump Administration’s imposition of sanctions targeting Myanmar’s top military leadership in 2019. This included sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander-in-chief now back upfront calling the shots in Myanmar. 

Preserving the ability to engage with Myanmar’s military leaders while imposing additional sanctions will not be easy without broad-based international support. This is made all the more difficult in an Indopacific region that is pragmatic and often more focused on economic interests than human rights and democracy. 

The state media in China—Myanmar’s largest trading partner—strikingly and simply noted that Myanmar had “reshuffled its Cabinet” as China seeks to remain engaged in a nation that is leery of China’s intent. 

In seeking to build international support for a return to a democratic Myanmar, the Biden team must also recognize that the still immensely popular-at-home Suu Kyi is not the only leader with which to engage over time. A “build back better” effort in Myanmar would also mean a focus on strengthening institutions and nurturing a diversity of young political leaders, not just a single individual. 

This would also include working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, now chaired by Brunei, to support its efforts and its call for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

 While neighboring Thailand with its own history of coups, as well as Cambodia and the Philippines with their own strong-man leaders, have said little to push back against what is unfolding in Myanmar, all know that instability and unrest will undermine an ASEAN region already suffering economically from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Think About Myanmar’s Most Vulnerable

And third, even as the Biden Administration rightly seeks to promote a return to democracy, it must ask what more can be done for the long-suffering people of Myanmar before democracy’s return?

This should go beyond necessary support to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar’s Rakhine state as well as those who fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and focus on all of Myanmar’s most vulnerable . 

With this in mind, any resumption of sanctions should also assess the consequences for continued engagement and impact on those most in need in Myanmar. During my time as U.S Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, from 2007-2010 under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, my remit included speaking out against any efforts by the multilateral bank development to resume lending for projects given the military regime then running Myanmar. 

This has since changed. Step-by-step, U.S. sanctions, and restrictions were lifted, leading to Obama’s formally ending U.S. economic sanctions against Myanmar in October 2016, nearly 20 years after their inception. The ADB would commence re-engaging with Myanmar in early 2012, and during 2013–2019, ADB committed loan and grant projects totaling $2.4 billion for Myanmar. The Biden Administration and U.S. Congress might well now revisit such U.S. support for Myanmar at the ADB, World Bank, and other institutions. 

In pondering sanctions, Biden must also decide to what degree U.S. companies will be left to decide on their own as to what degree “business as usual” can continue in Myanmar. So far, the international business community’s reaction is mixed. Germany’s Delivery Hero says its Food Panda delivery platform will move ahead with Myanmar expansion plans despite the coup. Japan’s brewing giant Kirin has announced it is breaking ties with its Myanmar partner due to its connections to the military.

Strikingly, while China might well see the coup as a moment of opportunity to seek further business inroads, Singapore was Myanmar’s largest foreign investor last year.

Yet, as respected Burmese writer & historian Thant Myint-U recently Tweeted, “While everyone’s thinking about Myanmar politics please also think about Myanmar’s poor.” 

The grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant added in the social media post, “Over 2020 lives of tens of millions have been descending into disaster w/ poverty rates soaring from 16 – 60%. Myanmar urgently needs vaccines and an equitable economic recovery (not a coup).”

Winning domestic U.S. support for humanitarian and development assistance for people in Myanmar and other of Asia’s developing nations is never easy in the best of times. Amidst hardship in the United States and around the world due to what the World Bank refers to as a “triple shock” — the pandemic itself, the economic fallout from the containment measures and the ensuing global recession—the challenge is even bigger, and now made worse by a military coup. 

Biden has called for the international community to present a unified response to the Myanmar coup.  He also has said, “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack.”

The intent of this statement and the strategy of unity and engagement are right, and the goal is a noble one. But in this first Asia foreign policy test for a brand new U.S. Administration, the Biden team must also recognize the limits of American power and influence in Myanmar in the short-term. 

As the last 10 years have shown in Myanmar, the path to improved human rights and strengthened democracy is no easy journey, and one that even the United States’s own challenges show will take more time than any of us would like. This too must be factored in as Biden shapes and executes a strategy for all Asia and the Pacific. 


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