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Burma coup poses early test for Biden foreign policy

Burma coup poses early test for Biden foreign policy
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The military coup in Burma is posing a critical early test for the Biden administration over how it will respond to the crisis amid its promise to coordinate with international allies and consult more closely with Congress on foreign policy concerns. 

President Biden was quick to denounce the military takeover and arrest of democratically-elected government officials, including the Nobel laureate and leader of the majority ruling National League Democracy for Aung San Suu Kyi. 

The State Department on Tuesday announced it formally viewed the crisis as a coup d'etat, triggering certain sanctions and a review of U.S. assistance to the country. 

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There is strong bipartisan support from lawmakers for the administration to take meaningful action in response to the military coup in Burma, which is also referred to as Myanmar. 

Congressional aides on both sides of the aisle welcomed swift communication by State Department officials to brief them on the quickly unfolding events in the country.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers are united in their condemnation of Burma’s democratic backsliding and are deeply invested in ensuring the protection of vulnerable minority communities like the Rohingya, who suffered at the hands of the Burmese military in what the United Nations has said amounted to genocide. Suu Kyi is a complicated partner for the West. She enjoys popular democratic support at home but has come under international criticism for failing to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya. 

“The administration made the right decision in determining a coup has taken place in Myanmar,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “This determination will ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars will not benefit the military junta that has wrongly seized power from the civilian-led government.”

The Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, carried out its coup early Monday morning local time, issuing a declaration of a national emergency in response to what it said was the government’s failure to address its allegations of fraud during the November elections, a charge disputed by local and international election observers. 

They arrested Burmese President U Win Myint, dozens of other political leaders, their family members and civil-society activists, according to the United Nations. Human rights groups reported internet shutdowns, phone outages and bank closures. 

The Tatmadaw handed control of the country for one year to military chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2019 for his role in human rights abuses and corruption related to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

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A congressional aide said the Biden administration’s assessment was that things seemed somewhat peaceful in the country at the moment and that Americans on the ground are safe. The aide said the U.S. is looking to impose additional sanctions on the Tatmadaw. 

U.S. influence through sanctions is limited. The Trump administration had largely restricted the amount of U.S. foreign assistance to Burma’s government. The vast majority of the $135 million in U.S. aid flows to civil society and humanitarian projects.  

“The Trump administration for whatever its other issues was not soft on human rights in Myanmar,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

More telling will be how Biden can leverage diplomacy to influence Burma’s military to reverse course. 

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said U.S. officials in Washington and around the world were “burning up the phones” to be in touch with like-minded allies in Europe, the Indo-Pacific and in southeast Asia on efforts to restore democracy. 

“This really gets to our approach to foreign policy broadly,” Price said. “We understand that across every challenge the United States is going to be the most powerful country in the world, but bringing along those allies, those partners, are force multipliers.”

The response from the international community has been somewhat split, with Western democracies forcefully condemning the coup while regional countries and Myanmar’s neighbors are viewed as taking a more cautious approach. 

One key nation is Japan, which regional experts view as having close economic ties to Myanmar and the ability to exercise strategic leverage, but may be unwilling to do so.

“They are reluctant to take a tougher approach to Myanmar because it’s a place of important strategic and economic importance to them,” Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said.

While initially calling the events in Myanmar “a grave concern,” Japan on Wednesday joined with G7 countries in explicitly condemning the coup, uniting with European and North American allies, including the U.S.

Regional experts are also taking notice of the response from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has so far offered muted concern. A statement from the intergovernmental organization, which is under the chairmanship of Brunei, did not address the military’s role in overthrowing the democratic government. 

A congressional aide said ASEAN’s statement signals it is unlikely to take action given the organization’s requirement to rule by consensus among its members, which include Burma. 

“It’s unlikely that ASEAN is going to do anything about this, which is unfortunate but it is certainly something to watch whether individual ASEAN member states push for something even if it’s not successful.”

The Philippines signaled it is hands-off in Myanmar, with a spokesperson for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly calling the military takeover “an internal affair,” a statement reportedly echoed by a Thai government official.

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Thailand underwent its own military coup in 2014. Its current civilian government is widely viewed as a proxy for military rule, with a former army chief serving as prime minister. 

China, for its part, has distanced itself from criticizing the situation in Myanmar, with the Foreign Ministry saying Beijing is a friendly neighbor of Rangoon and expressing “hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework and maintain political and social stability.”

State Department spokesman Price said instability in Burma is “not in the interest of the Chinese,” a point echoed by Kurlantzick.

“China had built a close relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. The military in Myanmar and China do not have good relations,” he said. “The idea that this is somehow beneficial to China is wrong.”

Chris Ankersen, professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, said the rare alignment between Washington and Beijing could present an opportunity for cooperation.

“National Security Advisor Jake SullivanJake SullivanBiden to detail 'roadmap' for partnership with Canada in meeting with Trudeau Lawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office National security adviser: US has begun communicating with Iran over hostages MORE has recently signaled that he wants to see a China-dimension added to all foreign policy issues. This presents a clear opening to see how that intention plays out,” he said in an email to The Hill.

Such cooperation did not play out during an emergency meeting on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council, where the U.S. and China are permanent members.

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The Tuesday meeting ended without a joint statement, despite U.N. Special Envoy for Burma Christine Schraner Burgener urging the body to “collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.”

“I call on this Council, especially any members who have influence over the military, to exercise its prevention and human rights obligations in helping ensure lives and civic freedoms are protected,” Schraner Burgener said.