Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Myanmar and Biden’s Broken-Down Car Dilemma

The Myanmar coup has posed an early test to the new administration’s promise to work with allies to forge an anti-authoritarian front.

By Andrew Samet for
Myanmar and Biden’s Broken-Down Car Dilemma

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 5, 2021.

Credit: Flickr/The White House

The February 1 coup led by Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing presents a dilemma for President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team.

No doubt the president faces more perilous challenges with Iran, China, North Korea, and Russia, not to mention difficulties with Venezuela and Cuba closer to home, than that posed by the military quashing an election result (again) in Myanmar.  But Burmese protesters using “broken down” cars to stall traffic and advance the civil disobedience movement confronting the generals also pose a predicament for President Biden as he seeks to establish his global leadership role.  Even more so, as the death toll begins to mount with two more protesters shot and killed in Mandalay on February 20.

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has shown itself since 1962 to be convinced of its right to rule the country, and has effectively done so.  This “right” has been exercised through repeated and massive killings and crimes against humanity – the elections overwhelmingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015 and 2020 notwithstanding.

It seems the mere possibility that the renewed mandate won by Aung San Suu Kyi would embolden her to try to broaden the space of civilian rule was sufficient for the military leadership to reassert their authoritarianism, sweeping away any pretense of democracy.

In doing so, the generals in Naypyidaw and Yangon represent an early, uncomfortable and potentially defining dilemma for President Biden and his national security team.

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In his first foreign policy speech since being sworn into office, President Biden spoke at the State Department on February 4 and emphasized two pillars of his diplomatic framework, both of which he also campaigned on.  First, the importance of working with allies to confront the advancing authoritarian challenge posed by the leaders of China and Russia.  Second, that U.S. global engagement in his administration would be “rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Indeed, the president claimed that the United States would emerge from the trauma of the assault on the Capitol on January 6 as a nation that was “stronger, more determined and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy, because we fought for it ourselves.” Biden then immediately pivoted to the need to reverse the coup in Myanmar and his strategy to do so:

Over the past few days, we’ve been in close cooperation with our allies and partners to bring together the international community to address the military coup in Burma…we will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and impose consequences on those responsible.

In so stating, Biden defined Myanmar as a test of his ability both to mobilize allies and defend democracy.

It is far from certain the president will be successful in his quest to restore the results of the 2020 election.  Despite international condemnation and sanctions after the military annulled Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory in 1990, the generals waited a quarter century, until 2015, to allow her to contest national elections again – even then only under a flawed constitution that preserved military control of key areas of government, regardless of the electoral outcome.

In overturning the election on February 1, the military leadership knew they could rely on support from China and Russia to protect their political, diplomatic, and security interests from any effort at the United Nations to intervene. While the U.N. Security Council issued a statement on February 4 calling for the release of those arrested, there is no indication the Security Council will take any effective action against the military coup.

Nor will the U.N. Human Rights Council, which in a February 12 special session adopted a consensus resolution calling for an end to the detentions. China and Russia made clear they did not endorse the resolution.

In any case, the generals in Myanmar have heard it all before.  Their response has been to arrest more people, extend Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention, and bring additional charges against her.

On February 15 and since, large crowds have gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy appealing for help from the Biden administration. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to see the courage of the Myanmar people, especially the young, who once again must protest for democracy and cry out for international support. They take the risk even though they know the brutal legacy of their own security forces against past protesters.

There is no doubt that the people of Burma have proved over and over again that they cherish the democratic values that Biden spoke of being ingrained in U.S. diplomacy.

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There is, however, more reason to doubt whether the president’s stated and no doubt sincere goal to rally the international community on behalf of the Myanmar people to reverse the coup will be successful. Indeed, his goal may not even be prioritized within his own administration.

It is beyond clear the generals have no intention of reversing the coup. So what are the “consequences?” President Biden announced an initial list of the actions he promised in his State Department speech, and the White House posted them in a “fact sheet” on February 11. The administration cites the U.N. Security Council statement and the Human Rights Council resolution, along with statements from the G7 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as evidence of its successful “coordination diplomacy.”

What is not mentioned was the work of China and Russia to dilute the Security Council statement and assure there was no movement towards any resolution that could justify international action on Myanmar. Nor does the fact sheet note that no member countries of the Human Rights Council from Latin America, Africa, or the Asia-Pacific (except the Republic of Korea) co-sponsored the resolution adopted by the Council, although several were willing to sign a letter of request to support a special session to take up the Myanmar resolution.

As to consequences for those responsible for the coup, the “working with allies” strategy has thus far failed to yield significant results. Granted it is still only three weeks into the crisis, but not a single other country has taken any economic actions similar to those announced by Biden, which include freezing some $1 billion in Myanmar government assets held in the United States and making it illegal for U.S. persons to engage with three gem mining entities controlled by military interests.

The United Kingdom and Canada announced on February 18 visa restrictions and asset freezes on some members of the junta’s State Administrative Council not already subject to sanctions in those countries because of the Tatmadaw’s human rights violations against the Rohingya in 2017. The European Commission may soon take action to add to their list of Myanmar military officers subject to restrictions. But there is no indication that any countries are prepared to apply more forceful economic measures.

Even the U.S. actions announced on February 11 are relatively modest when compared to, say, those imposed under the last administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. One suspects there is a debate within the Biden administration itself as to how robust the economic sanctions should be, even though the president stated unequivocally a policy to stand by democratic values and to impose consequences on the Myanmar military if it did not abandon the coup. The president has promised more to come, and Congress may insist on stronger action regardless. But it is unlikely that the first salvo caused the generals in Myanmar to take notice.

It is difficult not to wonder what the repercussions will be if the Biden administration is unwilling and likely unable to rally global action to hold the military leadership of Myanmar liable for annulling a free election.

More so, what will be the consequences for Biden’s stated foreign policy goals if no country will impose meaningful economic sanctions on the generals, their family members, their cronies, and their large network of business interests?

Frustration in Myanmar may well cause some to draw conclusions about the likelihood of Biden being able to realize his oft-repeated promise to rally democratic allies and friends to a common course of action on larger concerns as he again laid out in his February 19 remarks to the Munich Security Conference. The president affirmed his view that the transatlantic alliance is the foundation upon which democracies should defend their values and meet global challenges, including from China, Russia, and Iran. In this context it seems notable that these remarks made no mention of the crisis in Myanmar.

As a legislative staff member, Andrew Samet drafted the resolution introduced by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and passed by the United States Senate condemning the August 8, 1988 killings by the Myanmar military of peaceful protesters.