It is a pity that our disgraced former president seriously, literally, could not find Myanmar on a map. Because if he did know where it was or what was happening there in the past couple of days, think of the torment he would suffer finding out that a coup has just successfully taken place based on the unfounded assertion of widespread voter fraud in last November’s election.
He would no doubt be seething with jealousy to know that in a place he could not begin to spell, Myanmar’s capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, the military actually did what he hoped ours would do for him and reversed the will of the people, put the rightful winners under house arrest, shut down the media and installed their chosen leader in power.
While in the case of Myanmar, that leader is now General Min Aung Hlaing, the public statement read out on behalf of the new leaders would have no doubt have left the instigator of America’s failed coup green with envy. It asserted that voter lists used in the November elections “were found to have huge discrepancies,” and that the authorities responsible for resolving such issues had failed to do so. That the elections, which should have been postponed because of COVID, have been plagued by “terrible fraud” that had triggered unrest across the country and that therefore they would be forced—on behalf of democracy, mind you—to declare a state of emergency. It concluded that “the authority of the nation’s law making, governance and jurisdiction is handed over to the commander-in-chief.”
What a wistful moment it would have been for him when he read those words—or had someone read those words to him--and thought how close he came to living that anti-democratic dream of his. The coup leaders would also have triggered his envy because they got to put their high-profile Nobel Peace Prize-winning predecessor under arrest, while for him that has remained just a threat to be chanted at mass rallies of red-hatted yahoos.
Of course, in his narcissism, our failed insurrectionist surely sees this week’s events in Myanmar in terms of his own life and his shattered dream of the dictatorship that might have been, and not in terms of the profound setback it represents for the people there. In his profound simplemindedness he would not have been able to fully grasp the underlying complications associated with this coup—that while the true victors from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were deprived of their rightful role and their supporters had their voices stolen, the deposed were themselves not the clear-cut champions of democracy we had hoped they might be when they first won election in 2015. Since then they have overseen, enabled and sought to excuse the ongoing genocide against Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.
These complications pose challenges for all who must deal with the reality of the coup. When Suu Kyi assumed power after 15 years in detention, President Barack Obama was quick to embrace her as a hero. His administration lifted sanctions as she oversaw democratic reforms. Many on the foreign policy team of the new president, Joe Biden, participated in the reshaping of U.S. policy at that time and developed high hopes for the strategically located Southeast Asian nation. I know from conversations with several of them that they felt whipsawed and to a degree betrayed by Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya.
That said, Biden and his secretary of state responded swiftly and clearly to the news of the coup. By midday on Monday, Biden condemned the coup as an “assault on the country’s transition to democracy.” Declaring the U.S. would stand up for democracy, he asserted that his administration would immediately review whether the coup warranted reimposition of sanctions against the new regime. The day before, within hours of the news from Naypyitaw, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on coup leaders to “release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma.”
The clarity and swiftness of the Biden administration response—which included arranging briefings with the Congress late on Monday afternoon—was welcome. Promoting and defending democracy has been one of the clearest themes expressed by the new administration’s foreign policy team. Similar strong statements with promises of penalties had already been made with regard to Russian efforts to crush protests in the wake of the arrest of Alexei Navalny and with regard to the abuses of the Chinese regime in Hong Kong.
While the previous administration responded to cases like these, they often did slowly, and in the case of some abusers of democracy, like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, toothlessly and sometimes even fawningly. In the case of others, as in China, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines, their message was also mixed. And imagine how hard it would be for that administration if they were still in power, to condemn military leaders in Myanmar. What would they say? “We condemn your coup that was exactly the same as the one we attempted predicated on exactly the same reasons.”
Nonetheless, for Biden, Blinken and their team, the challenge now will be to come up with a policy that works to restore democracy without at the same time restoring leaders who will continue with the persecution of the Rohingya. Also, because unilateral sanctions are so ineffective, they will have to find a way to cultivate meaningful international pressure including from neighbors in the region who have, in the past, been risk-averse and defer to the Chinese on these matters. China, which has major interests in Myanmar, has thus far taken a neutral line regarding recent events.
But the Chinese did warn the Myanmar military against taking such steps when China’s foreign minister met with them last month. In recent years they have seemed to be more comfortable with the Suu Kyi government than that of the mercurial military leadership. Chinese pressure would be key to producing a reversal, just as it has been in containing the threat posed by Kim in North Korea. This is where international diplomacy gets even trickier, especially given the new administration’s manifold issues of contention with Beijing.
Nonetheless, the new administration has expressed a commitment to undertaking the kind of old-school diplomatic blocking and tackling associated with international coalition building and the Myanmar case, like that associated with the defense of democracy in Russia and elsewhere, will be a first test of whether they cannot only restore America’s standing but actually work to develop new, better functioning, forms of international collaboration.
According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the new foreign policy team has already begun “intensive consultations at multiple levels” with international partners and allies. Biden called for the international community to come together on this issue. And so the work begins on one of the first international crises faced by this not even two-week-old administration.
But, even in the first hours of the response, the Biden team has been a welcome contrast to its predecessors in responding quickly, defending democracy, embracing diplomacy, knowing where Myanmar is on a map and, of course, in not having recently participated in precisely the kind of coup we are now rightfully condemning.