Myanmar: Biden’s first foreign diplomacy test
On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, deposed the democratically elected parliament and arrested a prominent leader of the majority party, Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy. The Tatmadaw also declared a one year state of emergency and took control of Myanmar’s government.
This move is not unprecedented. Myanmar has been under the control of Tatmadaw for a large part of its history. In 2015, the first free election held since the 1942 military coup saw the NLD win a majority in both chambers of parliament, electing the first non-military leader in Myanmar since 1942. In the 2020 election, the NLD won with an even more massive margin, winning 396 of 476 seats, while the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s proxy party, won 33 seats. The military, concerned about its waning power, widely contested the election, and on the day when parliament was to start its session with its new members, the Tatmadaw staged a coup. Members of parliament were arrested and the internet was shut down as the Tatmadaw marched on the capital. Later, military officials claimed they wished to restore order after fraudulent elections and that new elections would be held in a year.
The international reaction to the coup has been varied. China and India have not taken strong positions. However, China did block a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning the coup, showing they are not wholly against the recent developments in Myanmar. The United States came out against the coup. President Biden firmly stated that “The military must relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of [Myanmar].” Biden moved to expand U.S. sanctions against Myanmar military officials by freezing $1 billion in assets with a promise to go further if the military did not relinquish its power.
By sanctioning Myanmar military officials, Biden illustrates that the United States is committed to taking aggressive steps to ensure that Myanmar's military relinquishes its power. Beyond sanctions — which should be expanded to the military members' families to increase their impact — the United States must also work with its allies to subvert the military’s abuse of power. Already, major countries and institutions have come out against the coup. The foreign affairs chief of the European Union condemned the coup and called for the military to relinquish control. The G7 countries have also made a similar statement.
Myanmar had a clear coup against a democratic election, and its ruling military is extremely unpopular domestically (which is visible by the election results) and lacks major backing by any country. Thus, quelling conflict in Myanmar offers Biden the perfect chance to restore our relationships with countries that Trump alienated with his misguided “America first” policy. The United States must demonstrate to its allies that it is willing to be a partner again. Biden can show this by meeting with world leaders to discuss a multilateral strategy to deal with the situation in Myanmar. In particular, Biden should meet with NATO Member Countries and G7 Member Countries, including the E.U. By doing this, Biden would illustrate that the United States is no longer going to be a nation that will ignore norms and act irrationally in the global arena. Instead, the United States will appear similar to its pre-Trump standing as a country that will work together with partners and create solutions. This will allow for the United States to build trust with its allies again after Trump alienated them.
In terms of what to actually do in the face of Myanmar's coup, the United States and its allies should continue to impose harsh sanctions against the Myanmar military. This would apply more pressure on the military due to the restriction of financial resources, thus making them more likely to relinquish power. Furthermore, having a large number of countries come out in unison with coercive action against the military will show that Myanmar is isolated, lowering its global prestige and decreasing the chance that other nations may come to its rescue. This step is vital because China’s support of Myanmar would give the military the financial backing it needs to stay afloat.
The United States holds an extreme amount of power in the international sphere. However, no country can afford to be alone in global politics. For the United States to stay relevant in global institutions and affairs, it has to rejoin with its old allies and prove itself again as a reliable partner. Only then can the United States regain the strong diplomatic status that it held before former President Trump. Myanmar is one of the first diplomatic tests of the Biden administration. It is vital that the president properly uses this situation to show that the pre-Trump United States has returned.