Democracy, regional security at stake after military coup in Burma

Democracy, regional security at stake after military coup in Burma


The future of human rights and democracy in Burma remains in question as does the security of Southeast Asia after the Burmese military seized power February 1, 2021.

The military coup sparked days of protests by tens of thousands of Burmese, which continued even after police fired bullets into the air to disperse crowds and shot rubber bullets and water cannons at protesters February 9, injuring some, news agencies reported. The United Nations immediately denounced the “disproportionate” use of force, and the United States condemned violence against the demonstrators, according to The Wall Street Journal newspaper. (Pictured: Protesters rally against the military coup to demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as police stand guard near their vehicles February 8, 2021, in Naypyitaw, Burma.)

U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order February 10 to enable the U.S. to impose new sanctions against Burmese military leaders to pressure an “immediate return to democracy,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

“The military must relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma as expressed in their November 8 election,” Biden said, and release activists and civilian government leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi who was re-elected that day along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. In a broadcast a day before the military junta’s action against protesters, it warned that action would be taken against “offenses that disturb, prevent and destroy state stability, public safety and the rule of law,” the BBC reported.

“For a military coup government that has trampled all over democracy and the rule of law, it’s absurd for them to claim they have any right to ‘legal action’ against peaceful protesters,” observed Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, the BBC reported.

In handing power over to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese military also declared a yearlong state of emergency and began implementing such restrictions as blocking Facebook, seizing control of state media, temporarily shutting down the internet, limiting public gatherings and enforcing curfews, CNN reported.

Many countries, including the U.S., quickly called for the military to reverse its actions and expressed “grave concern and alarm” over the Burmese military’s detainment of civilian government leaders.

“The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace and development,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the day of the coup.

Leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia voiced their concern over Burma as well and asked members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet to address how to preserve political stability in the region, including the plight of Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Burma to Bangladesh, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

“Indonesia and Malaysia take the political situation in [Burma] seriously,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said February 5 after meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta, AP reported. “This is a step backwards in [Burma’s] democratic transition. We fear the political unrest in [Burma] could disturb the security and stability in this region.”

“The Rohingya issue remains our concern,” Widodo said, AP reported. “To realize the ASEAN community vision, it is important for all of us to respect the ASEAN Charter, particularly rule of law, good governance, democracy, human rights, and constitutional government.”

The U.S. already imposed sanctions in 2019 against several top Burmese military leaders for their treatment of the Rohingyas.

Japan cautioned that the world’s democracies should be wary of pushing Burma closer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Reuters reported. “If we do not approach this well, [Burma] could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China,” State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama said.

In keeping with its “nonintervention policy,” the PRC officially responded a day after the coup that the PRC and Burma “are friendly neighbors. We hope that all parties will properly handle their differences under the Constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a Beijing news conference, according to The New York Times newspaper.

Although the Burmese military used alleged election fraud during the November 2020 elections as a pretense for the coup, some analysts pointed to a January 2021 goodwill meeting between PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Min.

“Something about that meeting seems likely to have led the military leader to believe that China would be willing to step up for its neighbor,” Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Center for Global Policy, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

“Through this foreign policy equivalent of gaslighting, China seems to be signaling its tacit support, if not emphatic endorsement, for the generals’ actions,” Burma expert Elliott Prasse-Freeman of the National University of Singapore told the BBC. “China seems to be proceeding as if this is [Burma’s] ‘internal issue’ in which what we are observing is a ‘cabinet reshuffle,’ as China’s state media put it.”

Even if the PRC did not explicitly approve or encourage the coup, the Burmese military calculated that Min could elicit cover from Beijing.

“The calculation here would be that China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence in Asia at the expense of the United States, so when Washington and its allies would come to impose consequences on [Burma], Chinese officials would still find it in their own interest to intervene on behalf of the leadership there,” Ibrahim wrote.

On February 2, the PRC, with its veto power, blocked the U.N. Security Council from implementing a statement condemning the military takeover, delaying a clear international response.

The PRC doesn’t want a significant international response such as sanctions, analysts explained.

“The bigger the political response, the bigger political liability China has to carry for the [Burmese] military,” Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., told the online magazine The Diplomat. “China will carry it … but I don’t think China will be doing that happily or willingly.”

“China will also pay a reputational cost abroad for any perceived support of the [Burmese] military — including shielding the country at the United Nations,” wrote Shannon Tiezzi, an editor at The Diplomat.

The political price may be worth it, other analysts said. “China will have greater leverage to pull [Burma] further into the orbit of its own plans for economic development,” Dr. John G. Dale, a George Mason University professor, told AP.

Other countries that are also heavily invested in Burma may only weakly support measures against the military regime, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Gregory B. Poling and Simon Tran Hudes wrote in a report.

“And the largest foreign player in [Burma’s] economy, China, will be all too happy to recalibrate its engagement to recognize the new facts on the ground. That will likely soften the blow of any U.S. sanctions, which Min Aung Hlaing has doubtless already anticipated and dismissed,” they wrote.