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Myanmar’s Coup D’état: The First Test for President Biden

Today, there was a coup d’état in Myanmar. The military overthrew the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an overwhelming victory in a previous election.

Myanmar’s military detained the country’s civilian leadership, including the world-renowned Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy political party. Officials from the National League for Democracy have confirmed the detentions.

The action by the military involves the seizure of power from a government that was established only five years ago. This coup, however, is one more political upheaval in a long list that the people of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have known in the past decades.

Suu Kyi’s Silence about Myanmar Military Actions Has Earned Her Some Enemies

Until recent years, Suu Kyi was considered a valiant fighter for democracy. But her silence vis-à-vis the atrocities committed by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya minority has earned her some enemies.

After Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize for peace she was able, with international pressure, to force the military to allow free elections. But the military junta was never far away and kept a watchful eye on the civilian government, maintaining control of 25% of the parliament and several ministerial positions.

The army operation against what it called Muslim radicals in Rohingya villages brought accusations of mass atrocities and also international criticism against Suu Kyi for staying silent. Her continued silence cost her dearly in the international arena, but she and her party are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Myanmar’s military always maintained some control of the government, and any public criticism of the military by Suu Kyi could have led to the same result: a coup. But Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy chose to side with the military, knowing full well they could not stop the army from its continued destruction of Muslim radicals. Will this choice by Suu Kyi and her political party, as morally reprehensible as it is, make the world look the other way now that the army has taken over Myanmar yet again?

The US Reaction to the Myanmar Coup

The Myanmar coup comes within the first month of the new administration in the White House. Biden’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, commented on the coup, stating: “The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.”

In a White House press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki commented: “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition.” She added that the U.S. “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

What can the U.S. government do on this issue? Should it do something? The Myanmar military Is no champion of human rights; it does not respect the democratic choices of the people of Myanmar and has no qualm in attacking civilians from the Muslim minority.

Can we criticize the civilian government in looking away in regard to the Rohingya killings? Yes, we can.

Suu Kyi and her political party should be condemned for their silence, but that does not mean we should throw away the baby with the bathwater. A democratic government in Yangon is a way forward, and a military coup will endanger human rights in that area of the world.

What can the U.S do to help resolve the situation? To start, it can target the leaders of the junta. Sanctions against Myanmar’s military officials and economic sanctions targeting the military and its financial interests might bring them to the negotiating table.

This policy would make sense if we accept the analysis that the military did not plan this move well.  BBC commentator Jonathan Head has pointed out that this coup might have been a knee-jerk reaction by the junta and not a well-thought-out political maneuver:

“But the military’s longer game plan is hard to fathom. What do they plan to do in the year they have given themselves to run the country? There will be public anger over a coup so soon after an election in which 70% of voters defied the Covid-19 pandemic to vote so overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi. Famously stubborn, she is unlikely to co-operate with a gun held to her head. Her ally, President Win Myint, is the only person authorized under the constitution to enact a state of emergency. He has been detained with her. For the moment, the military’s action appears reckless and puts Myanmar on a perilous path.”

Myanmar Could Be an Opportunity for the Biden Administration to Show Its Effectiveness

The situation in Myanmar might be an opportunity for the Biden administration to flex its muscles before other upcoming international challenges, namely with China and Iran. President Biden has a golden opportunity to apply pressure to the junta and show that he will not hesitate to throw his weight around in the global arena.

Myanmar’s junta has extraordinarily little to gain and much to lose. A threat of sanctions by the U.S. might lead the military to come down from the tree they decided to climb and will show the world that the new American president is not someone you want to mess with.

Biden could also leverage this pressure to include a solution to the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Let’s hope he and his administration will use this opportunity.

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B. in Law, an LL.M. in Law and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He has published a book, “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 17 articles in leading scholarly journals. At AMU, he teaches courses on International Law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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