The United States already faced a diplomatic dilemma in Myanmar even before the coup. Aung San Suu Kyi, its chief ally there, is now something of an international pariah thanks to her support for the military’s cleansing of the Rohingya minority in 2017. Once feted by Western liberals, she traveled to The Hague in 2019 to defend the military against charges of genocide. Her stance — she accused foreign observers of ignorance and malice in exaggerating reports of the violence — evidenced a growing hostility toward efforts by Western governments to push ahead with the country’s political opening. Her efforts as state counselor to strengthen Myanmar’s strained ties with China were read as further proof of this.
Whatever levers of influence the United States might once have had over the military have also greatly diminished in recent years. The sanctions it enacted against the generals responsible for the Rohingya campaign not only ruptured the delicate, albeit controversial, relations the United States had cultivated with the military in the years prior, but also lost it favor among the many in Myanmar who supported the military’s bid to drive out the deeply unpopular Muslim minority. The same fate befell the United Nations and other bodies that had tried, over the years, to act as a check on the military’s increasingly disconcerting actions. They too have seen their political influence evaporate.
A White House statement issued after the coup warned of “action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed” and later mooted the possibility of further sanctions. Yet, it’s far from clear whether such moves will have an impact. The sanctions already in place against army chief Min Aung Hlaing and other high-ranking figures have evidently done little to rein in their excesses, as the coup demonstrates. Military-run companies may now be targeted with greater force, but the State Department has repeatedly shown a reluctance to take any punitive financial measures that might further undermine the livelihoods of Myanmar’s already impoverished population.
There is very little that the Biden administration can now do. The coup is a sobering rebuff to those who held up Myanmar’s transition as evidence of the success of Washington’s “democracy promotion” activities in authoritarian states. Perhaps the United States now knows that it has lost Myanmar — or, at least, that it has lost the Myanmar with which it once tried to cultivate an alliance. The frenzied interest in the country in the years after it embarked on its transition to democracy in 2010 began to peter out some time ago.
There are several reasons for that disillusionment. They include the Rohingya catastrophe, bureaucratic barriers to foreign investment and the realization that the liberalization process in Myanmar — and thus U.S. political and economic influence — would only ever go so far. The junta that began its retreat in 2010 had been in power for 16 years, successors to a string of other military cliques that have ruled since 1962. It took the generals years to develop the blueprint for a partial transition that would, they hoped, guarantee their interests even as it opened the country up. Monday’s coup, which followed the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the country’s November general election, was evidence that this experiment might not ultimately deliver the returns they had once hoped for.
As power shifts back to the military, it is drained from other areas of life — independent media, activist networks and so on — that over the past decade had found space in which to carry out the kind of work that is fundamental to a functioning political society. Their retreat — a necessary one, for the time being — will be a depressing sight for those in Washington who for decades had channeled support to Myanmar’s opposition.
There are other grim consequences as well. Myanmar has experienced one of the longest armed conflicts in modern history, one that has endured for decades thanks to a lack of formal channels through which disenfranchised minority groups could negotiate their grievances. There was a time not long ago when those channels had begun, fitfully, to open. They too will now be closed.
If Min Aung Hlaing does care for U.S. engagement, then he will seek to bring Aung San Suu Kyi back into government. But it’s no longer clear that he does. The Biden administration might find that the work undertaken by the Obama administration to bring Myanmar into Washington’s orbit was in vain. The campaign against the Rohingya indicated not only the ferocity with which the military could go to work on a vulnerable population, but also its willingness to jeopardize ties with its new Western suitors in the hope that it could draw popular support away from Aung San Suu Kyi.
The battle over who determines the shape of democracy in Myanmar will continue — only now the military will have greater control over its outcome. Those in Washington who saw in that institution a vehicle for an open political society were fooled. A little over a decade after Myanmar emerged from the authoritarian darkness, the shadows have once again crept back in.