Asia Diplomacy & International Relations Human Rights Policy Politics & Government

Eyes on Biden as Myanmar Veers Away from Democracy

On February 1st, the military of Myanmar, known as the Tatmadaw and led by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup d’etat against the civilian government before sunrise.

The Coup

On February 1st, the military of Myanmar, known as the Tatmadaw and led by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup d’etat against the civilian government before sunrise. They acted swiftly to seize power on the eve of the swearing-in of the winners of the 2020 Myanmar general election and made efforts to block major roads, banks, telecommunications, internet connection, and social media across the country to hinder the communication between pro-democracy politicians and the spread of information to the general population. Myawaddy TV, which has been recently banned by Facebook, is a military-owned television network that has been used to spread misinformation and nationalist propaganda, calling November’s landslide election illegitimate and therefore disenfranchising millions of voters. It was also announced that a state of emergency would be imposed for at least a year and that another election would take place sometime in the future, presumably under conditions favorable to the Tatmadaw.

Both the Tatmadaw and its political proxy, known as the Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), lay baseless claims of election fraud against the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 83% of the non-military appointed seats in both houses of parliament last November. Ulterior motives behind the coup might also involve the potential liquidation of the military’s many business assets under a civilian-led government and the implementation of a constitutional rule that forces generals to retire at the age of 65; Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is 64 and hopes to maintain a firm grip over the country.

De facto leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and several politicians of the NLD were detained during the early morning coup. Days later, in a seemingly desperate attempt to “legally” detain Suu Kyi, the new government officially charged her for violating an obscure law that prohibits the possession of foreign goods lacking proper paperwork, particularly for her security detail’s imported walkie-talkies. 

After years of imprisonment and house arrests, Aung San Suu Kyi has become an icon and a leading figure in the fight for democracy in her country.

Although Suu Kyi is adored in her homeland for her leadership in a decades-long pro-democracy movement, which has witnessed her party’s victories in multiple elections by overwhelming margins, she is criticized by the international community for her inaction in the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis in the country’s northwest Rakhine State. Various world organizations like the United Nations have accused the country’s leadership of ethnic cleansing and genocide, which has displaced around 900,000 of the 1.4 million of the predominantly Muslim group in Myanmar, with the majority fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw has historically instigated ethnic insurrections and continues to incite communal violence, while further destabilizing and halting democratic progress in Burma. As a country with a 98% Buddhist population, the refugee crisis will only get worse under the leadership of the nationalist military junta.

After more than half a century of military dictatorships, the Tatmadaw agreed to share its power with a civilian government before the first free election in 2015; it seemed like Myanmar was ready to enter a new chapter. Although the military still retained significant influence and appointed ¼ of the parliament’s members, it was a baby step towards a fully-fledged democracy. Events are still unfolding, but it is reported that at least 70 NLD member-elects held an impromptu oath of office ceremony to send a clear message to the military while thousands of defiant students, teachers, healthcare workers, and everyone else fed up with the state of the nation are flocking to the streets to protest against the coup. The new generation of protesters held up the Hunger Games-inspired three finger salute to display their support for democracy in Myanmar.

Biden’s Response

President Joe Biden was quick to respond and condemned the military takeover, stating days later, “In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election.” He stopped short of explicitly calling it a “coup d’etat,” potentially leaving doors open for talks with the Tatmadaw and to avoid revoking the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars the U.S. from sending aid to any country that has been involved in a coup of an elected government. However, there are plans to “take action,” which will likely involve economic sanctions. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to incentivize any immediate change or renewal of the status quo since most of the aid goes to NGOs, humanitarian projects, and civil society organizations. The Obama Administration had originally eased past sanctions on Myanmar, seeing that the pro-democracy movement was slowly prevailing, but the Biden Administration wants to send a strong message to the Tatmadaw after their actions on February 1st. President Biden does not wish to hurt the people of Burma in the long-run since the U.S. appropriates $135 million to Myanmar annually, so halting much-needed aid to the country will be a difficult task to rationalize.

On Capitol Hill, there was bipartisan condemnation on the matter as well as widespread approval of the Administration’s handling of live updates and briefings to members of Congress. Japan and European allies all echoed America’s response, which will mount pressure on Burma’s generals and other regional powers in favor of the coup. In an official statement, President Biden said, “The United States is taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour. We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law,” — a suggestive nod to China and its influence on Southeast Asian affairs.

Biden’s Foreign Policy

Former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy disrupted the post-war liberal international world order and America’s role as the lone global policeman. In multiple instances he threatened to leave NATO and the WHO, and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, TPP, and the Paris Agreement. To some, it showed a renewed focus on domestic affairs; to others, it signaled an era of isolationism and a withdrawal from America’s international commitments it once championed and led. This has forced many countries to question the reliability of the United States as an ally and partner while casting a long shadow over world affairs, revealing that future stability can no longer be guaranteed if Trumpism continues to be a dominant force in American politics.

President Biden ran and came into office promising to rebuild trust with allies, keep America at its word, and uphold democratic values abroad, declaring in a recent speech, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” But as Biden’s foreign policy begins to take shape under new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the U.S. increasingly faces challenges with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the Middle East while overwhelmingly bogged down by domestic issues regarding COVID-19, racism and civil unrest, immigration, unemployment, and climate change.

Aware of competing global agendas and democratic backsliding, the President mentioned that “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the U.S. and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” China, in particular, has increasingly acquainted itself with the opportunities given by America’s withdrawal from world affairs under Trump and has taken on numerous leadership roles in the United Nations, WHO, Paris Agreement, and the Asia-Pacific centric RCEP free trade agreement. In relation to Myanmar veering back into another military dictatorship, the struggling Southeast Asian nation may very well fall into China’s sphere of influence with no significant regional opposition, especially from fellow ASEAN countries. The neighboring country of Thailand also has a long history of military rule and witnessed a similar coup back in 2014; ASEAN was largely silent over the crisis.

Big Picture

The world will be watching closely as President Biden seeks to strengthen America’s force multipliers in the midst of the resurgence of authoritarianism and nationalism. While Burma’s future is uncertain under another stratocracy, Biden’s response serves as a litmus test for America’s foreign policy under a new administration and for the world to observe how it communicates and coordinates with its allies. Biden is committed to a “return to normalcy” and is looking forward to collaborating closely with allies, while also aiming to regain both trust and responsibility on the world stage, proclaiming that America “will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.” Interestingly, most of Trump’s policies will be kept in place, and no major shifts in foreign policy are expected to occur under the new administration, except for plans to rejoin international organizations and agreements, as President Biden takes on a swath of issues both at home and abroad. In the meantime, the fledgling Biden Administration and its State Department-in-waiting will have plenty to do.

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