On the morning of February 1st, 2021, the military of Myanmar seized control of the government after the general election in which Aung San Suu Kyi, the current head of the government, and the National League for Democracy (NDL) party won by a landslide. The military is now currently in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency. The military had backed the opposition in the election, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud. The election commission of Myanmar said there was no evidence to support these claims of voter fraud. The coup was staged shortly after as a new session of parliament was set to open. Ms. Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest and has been charged with possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies. Many other NLD officials have also been detained. Power has been handed over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has overseen the military of Myanmar for many years now and has declared that the country will have a “free and fair” election after the state of emergency is over.
The citizens of Myanmar’s response have been far from positive. Simply put, the overwhelming majority of citizens of Myanmar are unhappy with the military coup and want to justice for their elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. People have taken to the streets in protest of the military takeover. Protesters have employed peaceful and nonviolent forms of protest, which include acts of civil disobedience, labor strikes, a military boycott campaign, a pot-banging movement, a red ribbon campaign, public protests, and formal recognition of the election results by elected representatives. The color red, which is the color associated with the NDL party, is being worn by many of the protesters. While people are taking to the streets, the military is taking countermeasures as well. In response to the growing protest movement, the military has enacted an internet and social media blackout, a media blackout, pursuit of arrests and criminal sentences against protesters, the spread of disinformation, political overtures to competing political parties, deployment of pro-military protesters and instigators, and the violent use of force to suppress protests.
So far, the United States has taken action against the leaders of the coup in hopes to restore order to the country and promote the democratic process. The response has been a swift verbal condemnation, a review and suspension of some aid programs, and some targeted economic sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders. President Biden has said that the coup is “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law” and that “the international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized; release the activists and officials they have detained.” Both sides of the aisle in Congress agree that what is happening in Myanmar is bad for democracy and that the United States should take steps to help solve the problem. The unity is a good sign for the United States moving forward and the first steps already taken to help the people of Myanmar have been good. But are they enough? Is there anything else that the Biden administration can do to help the people of Myanmar?
The answers to those questions are complicated. Yes, there is more that the United States could do, but the ongoing situation necessitates a strategic and cautious response. One of the problems for the United States is that it simply does not have the economic leverage it needs to put an adequate amount of pressure on the leaders of the coup. Myanmar is not a highly profitable trade partner or close military ally. Compared to the United States, China and Japan have vastly more economic leverage when it comes to trade with Myanmar and are better positioned to put pressure on the coup leaders and help restore democracy. If the United States wants to help restore the democratic process and end the coup in Myanmar, then one possible way forward is to work with the surrounding countries that have more economic leverage. Working with China to successfully end the coup is a long shot given both the United States relationship with China and their current “hands off” policy. However, if the interests of China are threatened by the takeover, then there could be an opportunity to place more substantial sanctions on the leaders of the coup. The United States could also work with countries that have relatively closer economic ties to Myanmar like India or South Korea to place more pressure on the leaders of the coup.
Another way the United States can help the people of Myanmar is to stand with them publicly. The Biden administration should consider what more it can do to support the people protesting the coup. While the United States might not have the economic leverage to put immense pressure on the leaders of the coup, the people of Myanmar do. The protestors and citizens of Myanmar have the power to put pressure on military to relinquish control back to the rightful ruler. An important part of the protests has been the work strikes by the government and private employees. Trains have ground to a halt, hospitals have closed, and ministries in the capital, Naypyidaw, are believed to be straining amid mass walkouts. If the people are able to stop the government mechanisms from working, then that will disable the military’s ability to rule. The United States has already proclaimed that it stands with the people of Myanmar in word but helping the citizens financially and funding peaceful protest movements is key to supporting the people moving forward.
Supporting the people of Myanmar now will build trust and create a stronger bond between our two countries in the long run. The United States would benefit from playing the long game with Myanmar and other potential allies in the Southeast Asia. Having allies in the region will be a benefit because of the more immediate national security threats of China and North Korea. Down the road, having allies in Asia could prove to be an essential aspect of dealing with potential threats to national security. Moving forward the United States should work with countries closer to Myanmar to put pressure on the military leaders of the coup and then financially back the protestors. Showing support for the people of Myanmar now will go a long way for us down road in creating a stronger bond between our two countries. Building alliances will strengthen national security, especially when it is in a part of the world where the US already face immediate threats.