As violence escalates in post-coup Myanmar, protesters have grown increasingly frustrated with the limited international support for their pro-democracy movement. Their best hope for galvanizing renewed attention and action is U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for USAID administrator, former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, whose confirmation moved forward this week.
Power rose to fame with her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem from Hell,” which unpacked the recent history of world genocides in the context of U.S. inaction. As U.N. ambassador from 2013 to 2017, Power advocated strongly for meaningful action against the Assad regime in Syria. Her unsuccessful efforts to persuade a U.N. Security Council paralyzed by Russia and an Obama administration immobilized by domestic infighting give her both academic and experiential grounding in international failures to meet atrocities with more than rhetoric.
She also has grounding in Myanmar’s confused democratic experiment. The February 1 military coup unraveled one of the Obama administration’s key foreign policy priorities: facilitation of the country’s international reopening, an effort in which Power played a pivotal and visible role. During her 2012 visit to Myanmar, Power harbored prescient concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s disinclination to prioritize the rights of Myanmar’s persecuted minorities. Years before the worst of the genocidal violence against the Rohingyas toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s international standing, Power suspected that U.S. confidence in Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely-heralded democratic intentions had been misplaced.
Power’s sensitivity to the National League for Democracy’s often tepid embrace of liberal norms will guide her well in navigating Myanmar’s post-coup political landscape. Many of Myanmar’s ethnic political parties felt in the aftermath of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appointment to state counselor that the pre-2016 military dictatorship had been replaced by a similarly authoritarian NLD. The effectiveness of the current civil disobedience movement owes a debt to the solidarity shown by these smaller parties, who have overwhelmingly stood against the coup in support of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a government-in-exile comprised of NLD lawmakers ousted in the coup. Whichever way the coup unfolds, erasing these voices is no longer an option. If the military government can be deposed, Myanmar must advance an inclusive multi-party democracy — an exercise that USAID, with Power at the helm, would be well positioned to support.
But Power is likely to have opportunities to influence U.S. policy toward Myanmar long before democracy promotion is on the agenda again. Biden’s decision to make the USAID administrator a permanent member of the National Security Council means Power will have a seat at the table as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell navigate an updated Asia pivot.
In a conversation that will be dominated by the U.S. relationship with China, Power is the most likely proponent of humanitarian and democratic interests in the region and is likely to be a formidable voice in support of stronger U.S. intervention, including lobbying the U.N. Security Council for international sanctions and using U.S. influence to apply meaningful diplomatic pressure. As protests intensify in Myanmar, the civil disobedience movement should look to Power as their best avenue to secure greater international support.