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Biden’s first international crisis, in Myanmar, would be a terrible thing to waste

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That President Biden faced his first international crisis within less than two weeks of his inauguration is not a surprise. The surprise is that it took that long. 

The sure bet it is that there will be more — many more. And how he handles this one will influence what he may or may not be able to do in the ones that follow.

Myanmar politics is no place for heroes. First, the facts. Early on the morning of Feb. 1 in Myanmar (formerly, Burma), and hours before a new parliament was to be sworn in, the country’s all-powerful military swooped in to arrest Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy had overwhelmingly won the recent elections, and other civilian leaders. The Myanmar military — known as Tatmadaw — declared a one-year state of emergency and assumed all government powers, including the presidency. No one believes that this is a one-year deal.

It was a classic military coup d’état, except that the country has, effectively, been under military rule since 1962 — including in the period since 2011, in which the military had allowed some very limited space to elected civilian leaders. That space has been snatched back, again.

Myanmar’s so-called “fledgling democracy” experiment always was more fledgling than a democracy.

At the center of world attention is Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s independence hero, General Aung San. She is a tireless political fighter known to her followers simply as “The Lady” because, in the 1980s, speaking her name in public was not allowed by the military. She was the landslide winner of the 2015 and 2020 elections — clearly, the most popular leader in Myanmar and certainly, the most famous Burmese in the world. 

While her rise to prominence was a tough and slow slog, her fall from grace has been swift. Once revered as a brave and principled international icon for democracy, she turned in the past three years from being one of the most admired Nobel Peace Prize winners to a tainted symbol of compromise and capitulation, with calls mounting for her Nobel to be withdrawn. Accepting a flawed military-led democracy could be understood as a necessity, but cheerleading the genocide of the Rohingya has been not just unacceptable, but intolerable.

While Aung San Suu Kyi is no hero, this story has a clear villain. This coup belongs to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The 64-year-old general has been Myanmar’s military  commander in chief since 2011. His age is important because he turns 65 this July and, based on a new law made only six years ago, is required to retire at that time. He clearly does not wish to give up control.

One would think that 10 years of being the most powerful person in the country would be enough. But the fact is, if he were to actually retire at 65, he would be the first Myanmar military leader ever to do so. For example, his immediate predecessor in this position, Senior General Than Shwe, kept that position for nearly 19 years, until the ripe old age of 78. Than Shwe was, of course, both commander in chief and dictator. Now, so is Min Aung Hlaing. 

(As an ironic aside, it is worth noting that the first person to hold the position of Myanmar military’s commander in chief was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San.)

Here is the bottom line: Myanmar’s decade of flirtation with its hybrid democracy began with Min Aung Hlaing and it ended, this week, with him. This is not about the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi as much as it is about the elevation to permanence of General Min Aung Hlaing. The de facto has been made de jure. The military, after all, was already in control; what happened in Myanmar on Monday was not a simple military takeover but a palace coup.

What can Joe Biden do?

The honest answer is, there is very little that the president of the United States — or any international actor, including China — can do to get Myanmar out of the mess it finds itself in. But that should not keep Biden from taking a strong principled stance on the issues that define this crisis, because it is those issues — rather than the immediate political fate of either Aung San Suu Kyi or Min Aung Hlaing — that will be defining Biden’s foreign policy record.

The two issues that define the Myanmar crisis — the sanctity of elections and the abuse of human rights in the name of nationalism — are not only central to this moment in American history, they are issues that are likely to raise their head around the world, and especially in Asia, in the coming months. Even if Biden’s response may have little immediate impact on Myanmar, it is the signal that he sends to strongmen elsewhere — for example, to consider only two of Myanmar’s close neighbors, in the Philippines and in Thailand — that will convey America’s continuing commitment to principles that, frankly, has not been self-evident recently.

The minimum that would be expected from the United States, it has already done: The president immediately condemned the military’s actions, called for respect for democracy and rule of law, and then formally designated the situation as a coup d’état, thereby triggering an aid freeze.

All, very good. But Biden can do more, at least on two fronts. 

First, he could more forcefully champion an international insistence on respecting election results. Individual country displeasure has been voiced, but meaningful and persistent collective condemnations from key international fora such as the United Nations Security Council, the G7 and the G20, need leadership. Given the recent trauma of the United States’s internal struggles with respecting the voters’ will it is more opportune, not less, for Biden to impress on the world just how important this is.

Importantly, the immediate crisis only highlights how negligent the world community, including the United States, has been in ignoring the plight of the Rohingya. Now would be a good time for Biden to act more decisively. Ignoring a genocide of this proportion clearly emboldened the Myanmar military. Continuing to do so, now that even the façade of a democratic dispensation has been demolished, would be unpardonable.

Adil Najam is a professor of international relations and the founding Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. Follow him on Twitter @AdilNajam.

Tags Burmese people Joe Biden Myanmar coup Myanmar general election Rohingya Genocide

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