In 2012, I co-authored an article with Dan Twining in the Washington Post warning that the Obama administration’s decision to lift the investment ban in Myanmar went too far too soon – and that the United States would regret it To have given away all of this leverage while Myanmar’s military still had so much control over the country. That day has now come. On January 31, the military staged a coup that ousted State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi when she was ready to lead an overwhelming majority in parliament after her party’s landslide victory in last November’s elections. For the generals, who had real power behind the scenes, the prospect of a full democratic transition was too great. And so they struck, claiming a new standard of truth set by former US President Donald Trump that there had been “massive electoral fraud” – an indictment that no independent observer would accept, like no US court would accept Trump’s extravagant claims accepted.
This was all foreseeable, even though the champagne corks surfaced among the Obama White House spin masters in 2012 for playing the Myanmar card against China by normalizing US-Myanmar relations. Now the veterans of this policy, many of whom have re-entered government under the new Biden administration, have to pick up the pieces. In some ways, finding a way for Washington to respond to Myanmar will be much more difficult than it was during the Obama administration. The United States gave the military what it wanted most back in 2014: lifting restrictions on investments in the oil and gas sector that would inject cash into their coffers. Although the United States imposed targeted sanctions in response to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act, tougher sanctions are now much more difficult to impose. Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood also looks less democratic today, as a military junta next door in Thailand is responsible and the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suppresses political disagreements and causes extrajudicial violence in his country. After all, China’s political and economic influence in Southeast Asia is now viewed as greater than that of the United States. Beijing will have no problem joining a new authoritarian government against the people of Myanmar.
On the other hand, the kit includes some new tools for Biden administration. Australia, Great Britain and the European Union have already signaled that they will speak out strongly against the coup. Japan has always been much more cautious about maintaining engagement in Myanmar, but Tokyo has increasingly emphasized democratic values in its foreign policy competition with China. For example, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has urged the Biden administration to keep the words “free and open” in the strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific that it convinced the Trump administration to adopt. The Biden team agreed, but now Tokyo should pay the price of admission by joining Washington to draw conclusions if freedom is restricted. Also important are developments in neighboring Thailand, where popular dissatisfaction with the military leadership is boiling to the surface. This has led the Bangkok government to give more support to the new military leadership in Myanmar, but it also suggests that popular anger over the democratic relapse in Southeast Asia is a growing force, including among the citizens of Myanmar with whom they now have experience of elections and democracy.
Finally, there is the Biden administration itself. The Obama administration lifted the sanctions in 2014 in a realpolitical game against China in which high-ranking US officials broke the outgoing George W. Bush administration’s democracy agenda – in particular the isolation of Myanmar by Myanmar outshone. However, during his 2020 election campaign, US President Joe Biden spoke about the importance of United States democratic norms and promised to put them at the center of his foreign policy. An early indication of where Biden and his team stand on this issue is the White House’s reference to “Burma” in its official statements since the coup. The US government had steadily shifted from using “Burma” to designating the country “Myanmar” – the name chosen by a former military junta in 1989 and accepted by the United Nations, most Asian governments and foreign policy media. When asked if the use of “Burma” should be rude, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied, “I don’t think you should draw that conclusion.” But it was clearly not intended for normal business either to signal.
Monday’s coup is Biden’s first real challenge on his democracy agenda – and ironically, in the country where the Obama administration decided to ditch the democratic focus of its predecessors. The new administration’s response should be urgent if Biden expects the world to take Washington’s renewed emphasis on democracy seriously.