The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Myanmar’s coup and the waning of an Obama-Biden legacy

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“Is it time to invade Burma?” That was the headline of a widely circulated Time magazine column in May 2008 after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country also known as Myanmar, killing more than 130,000 people while leaving countless more destitute and desperate. Just half a decade after the invasion of Iraq, some U.S. policymakers still believed in the merits of a regime-changing war of choice. Myanmar’s secretive military junta — isolated, cruel and incompetent — seemed an easy target.

Of course, no invasion came to pass. Instead, Washington had its own political transition and President Barack Obama’s team ushered in a new era of American policy on Myanmar. The Obama administration saw glimmers of an opening with the junta, which was plotting liberalizing reforms, and initiated a review of U.S.-Myanmar policy.

In 2009, Kurt Campbell, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, briefed senators on the administration’s vision for coaxing Myanmar along the path to democracy. “A policy of pragmatic engagement with the Burmese authorities holds the best hope for advancing our goals,” Campbell said, stressing that “engagement for its own sake is obviously not a goal for U.S. policy, but we recognize that achieving meaningful change in Burma will take time.”

Meaningful change indeed seemed to come. Prominent political prisoners, including the celebrated Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, were released and allowed to enter politics. U.S. sanctions on the country were eased. Foreign investment poured in, catapulting what was a telecoms desert into the digital age. By one account, the percentage of the population with mobile phone numbers increased from 7 percent in 2012 to 90 percent in 2015. Obama made history by becoming the first American president to visit Myanmar in 2012; he returned two years later.

Those trips were preceded and followed by senior U.S. officials, including Campbell and then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In 2015, Blinken went to Myanmar ahead of scheduled elections for meetings with leaders across government, the military and civil society, in which he expressed the United States’ commitment to the country’s democratic transformation and concerns about progress yet to be made — including over the inclusion of ethnic minorities. For many officials in the Obama administration, bringing Myanmar in from the geopolitical cold was a legacy on which they hoped to hang their hats.

That legacy matters now, in part because of the coup that took place Monday, turning the spotlight once more on the predations of Myanmar’s military. But it matters also because many of these same officials are again in leading policy positions under President Biden. Blinken is the secretary of state; Campbell, who left government to start a consulting firm that briefly advised private companies seeking to do business in Myanmar, is now steering Asia policy on Biden’s White House national security team.

Biden and Blinken condemned the Myanmar military’s arrest of hundreds of activists and politicians, including Suu Kyi, and warned of punitive measures. On Tuesday, the administration formally declared what transpired a coup d’etat, triggering a review of U.S. assistance to the country. “The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities.”

But the situation in Myanmar is a far cry from the one that once energized Obama and his aides. Suu Kyi went from global icon to a borderline pariah, thanks to her defense of her country’s brutal treatment of its Rohingya minority. Even during the Obama years, U.S. officials had pressed counterparts in Myanmar about the country’s unresolved ethnic insurgencies and tensions, including the marginalization of Rohingya communities. But some recognize now that they failed to see the depth of the crisis that boiled over in the final months of the Obama presidency, when a bloody military campaign saw the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh balloon to around a million people in a matter of months.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted you could push out 700,000 people,” Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar during much of Obama’s second term, told Politico in 2018. “We never felt that there was an imminent danger that required us to forgo a diplomatic engagement approach for a more hostile policy. We didn’t want to get rid of everything over an issue that we didn’t know would actually blow up this bad.”

The Trump administration placed sanctions on high-level figures in the Myanmar military associated with violence against the Rohingya. But those measures also show the limits of what Biden can do to unwind the effects of the coup. “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,” wrote Francis Wade, author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other.’ “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.”

China, whose state media conspicuously characterized the events in Myanmar as a “cabinet reshuffle,” arguably holds greater leverage. It also has cultivated close ties to the now-detained Suu Kyi, who remains the most influential civilian politician in the country. Some analysts believe Beijing and Washington could find some points of convergence in the aftermath of the coup.

“The United States could recognize Beijing’s commercial interests in its Belt and Road Initiative developments in Myanmar, in exchange for China’s support for forcing Myanmar into humanely resolving the Rohingya crisis in the borderlands, and entrenching the power of the democratic forces in the country that are indeed quite friendly to Beijing,” wrote Azeem Ibrahim of the Center for Global Policy in Washington. “That would be an optimistic outcome, not only for Myanmar but also for the prospects of U.S.-Chinese cooperation when genuine shared interests can be found.”

That’s a tall order, given the current dire state of Sino-U.S. relations. Within Myanmar, though, a new plugged-in generation of young activists may offer more resistance to a military establishment long accustomed to dominating the country’s political scene. The farcical charges leveled against the detained leaders — Suu Kyi was accused of illegal possession of a handful of walkie-talkies — has only stoked further public anger.

For the beleaguered Rohingya, mired in squalid refugee camps, there remains a flicker of hope that the coup could stir more global ire at Myanmar’s military establishment. “If that facade [of a democratic transition] has been destroyed,” Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist writing a history of the Rohingya refugees, told my colleague Miriam Berger, “then there’s a question about whether the international community, and especially the new Biden administration, is going to be more forthright.”

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