The small South East Asian nation Myanmar became headline news last week after its military staged a coup, seizing power after detaining the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected political leaders.
Only a decade ago, Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy was celebrated as one of President Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments. Now, the small nation is President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy nightmare.
A Proxy For Power
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country of 54 million people. It shares borders with China, India and several other South East Asian neighbors. Since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, its powerful military staged a number of coups that replaced pro-democracy leaders with their own.
Naturally, Myanmar faced international economic sanctions for suppressing the country’s pro-democracy movement and keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than a decade. The United States pulled its ambassador to Myanmar in 1990 and imposed several economic sanctions against Myanmar’s military-led government.
However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) eased the economic pain by sustaining Myanmar’s military-led government economically, militarily, and politically. China has been not only Myanmar’s largest trading partner, but also Myanmar armed forces’ biggest supporter. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 60 percent of Myanmar’s weapon imports came from China.
Myanmar signed on to China’s mass infrastructure project to connect China’s Yunnan province to major cities in Myanmar and give China access to the Indian Ocean, financed by loans from China’s state banks and built by China’s state enterprises. The CCP treats Myanmar as a vassal state that can help China expand its economical and geopolitical influence in Asia and beyond.
Concerns of its over-dependence on China drove Myanmar military leaders to seek to reestablish its relationship with the West and the relief of punishing economic sanctions. The military declared that Myanmar would transition to a democracy.
The military rewrote the country’s constitution in 2008, preserving power for itself, including key cabinet positions, a guarantee of a quarter of seats in the country’s parliament, and unlimited power at the time of any “state emergency.” Other political parties are only allowed to exit if they could be disciplined. In fact, the word democracy appeared only once in the constitution.
A general election was held in 2010 and the military-backed party was declared a winner. As an additional goodwill gesture to the West, the military released Suu Kyi from her house arrest in 2011, but barred her from running for office.
One thing neither the military nor the newly released civilian leader refused to address is ongoing discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority living in Rakhine state. Since Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority country, Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship, were not recognized as a people, were excluded from the nation’s census in 2014, and are frequently the target of abuses by government backed security forces. What kind of democracy was Myanmar transitioning to if its government refused to respect and protect the human rights of all its people?
Obama Loses Leverage
Many signs pointed to an inevitable conclusion that the so-called transition to a democracy was a farce. Nevertheless, Obama embraced it wholeheartedly.
After Suu Kyi’s release in 2011, the United States initially planned to gradually lift economic sanctions on Myanmar in a carefully phased approach, as an incentive to encourage Myanmar’s military leaders to make truly meaningful progress towards self-rule. But eager to portray Myanmar as a foreign policy success, Obama made a historical visit to Myanmar in November 2012, the first U.S. president who had done so in three decades.
Human rights activists argued Obama should have secured some real improvements from the military, especially on the human rights front, before he granted the nation a presidential visit. They complained that without such improvement, Obama’s visit was an “utter loss” and an untimely endorsement of the ruling military power.
Obama’s historic visit generated many valuable photos, especially the one of him and Suu Kyi, two Nobel Peace Prize winners, holding hands together with big smiles surrounded by civilian political leaders in Myanmar. However, Obama’s trip failed to generate much-needed political change in Myanmar.
In early 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Myanmar would need to “change its constitution to guarantee civilian power if it wanted remaining sanctions removed.” However, the desire to cement his legacy drove Obama to override Kerry by announcing in September 2016 that the United States would lift all the remaining sanctions against Myanmar without demanding anything from the Myanmar military in return.
The final obstacles for the United States and Myanmar to normalize their diplomatic relationship were removed, but Obama’s unilateral action also removed any final leverage the United States had over Myanmar.
Turning a Blind Eye to Genocide
In 2017, the ethnic conflict in Rakhine state worsened after Rohingya militants launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts. Local Buddhist mobs, backed by the military, retaliated by deploying even more deadly force. They burned villages, raped and abused Rohingya women and girls, and killed civilians.
An estimated 6,700 Rohingya Muslims, including at least 730 children, were killed. More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees escaped into neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations report declared the Myanmar military was carrying out genocide.
But Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and symbol for the democracy movement in Myanmar, acted indifferent. As the nation’s de facto civilian leader, she did next to nothing to stop the atrocity in her country, refusing to acknowledge their sufferings. She even travelled to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2019 to testify on behalf of Myanmar’s military, where she defended Myanmar military’s action and rejected any evidence of genocide as fake news.
The Trump administration imposed targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders who were responsible for oppression against Rohingya Muslims, but support from China has shielded these military leaders from any real hardship, thus making sanctions ineffective.
Myanmar’s military staged a coup this February after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November 2020’s election. General Min Aung Hlaing seized power, arrested Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders, and returned Myanmar to military rule.
The military also disrupted the nation’s internet service and blocked social media sites such as Facebook, revealing there was never a real democratization in Myanmar. This transition was largely built up by the self-deception and illusion of western leaders like Obama.
Biden Is Left Holding the Bag
With little leverage left, the new Biden administration faces a serious challenge. Imposing sanctions now will only push Myanmar deeper into China’s geopolitical orbit, but doing nothing will be equally dangerous.
Myanmar is in play between the two super powers, the United States and China. Inaction from the United States will be perceived as an admission of defeat and a win for China. Other countries will reevaluate the United States’ commitment in Asia, and may decide they have no choice but to join China’s sphere of influence.
The Biden administration, composed of Obama administration veterans, should learn a few valuable lessons.
First, our foreign policy should be based on realism. Illusions and wishful thinking do not bring real change. We need to be clear-eyed on who we are dealing with. We need to see them as they truly are, not who we wish them to be. Biden ought to expand on Donald Trump’s realism with China and other authoritarian regimes.
Second, don’t give up our leverage too soon. Always demand real change first. Trust, but verify. Once we lose our leverage, it is very difficult to regain it.
Third, do not let personal ambition shape our foreign policy. Dealing with nations that have different history and ideology from ours means any desired outcome will take time and tactics. Foreign policy should be driven by what’s best for America, not what’s best for someone’s legacy. Failing to learn these lessons will result more foreign policy failures.