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Myanmar’s Coup Tests Biden’s Commitment to Global Democracy

Washington has a chance to revive its traditional role and rally international opposition to an authoritarian power grab.
February 4, 2021
Myanmar’s Coup Tests Biden’s Commitment to Global Democracy
Soldiers ride in PTL-02 anti-tank 6x6 armored vehicles in Myitkyina, Kachin state on February 3, 2021, as Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was formally charged on Wednesday, two days after she was detained in a military coup. (Photo by STR / AFP / Getty)

The military coup in Myanmar on Monday has its origins in the country’s troubled domestic politics, but it is also the latest symptom of a worldwide decline in democratic governance that Freedom House has documented over the past 15 years. During the same period, the United States has retreated from its traditional role as a champion of democracy and human rights. With a new administration taking shape in Washington, the ouster of Myanmar’s civilian leadership presents the United States with an opportunity to reclaim its place on the global stage and revive multilateral support for democratic values around the world.

Early on Monday morning, Myanmar’s military commanders seized power from the civilian government, pointing to alleged fraud in the November parliamentary elections. While the elections were flawed, with balloting canceled in some ethnic minority regions and campaigning restricted by COVID-19 and internet shutdowns, international and domestic election monitors reported no widespread fraud. And according to Reuters, of the more than 90 parties that participated in the vote, about 17 complained of mostly minor irregularities; of those, all except the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are smaller parties. The election results showed an overwhelming victory for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her governing National League for Democracy (NLD). By contrast, the USDP was reduced to just 6 percent of the elected seats in parliament, though the country’s constitution guarantees the military itself—as opposed to the USDP—a quarter of all seats.

The armed forces detained more than 50 politicians and activists—including Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other leaders of the NLD—and declared a one-year state of emergency, with commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing leading the country. In a possible effort to head off civilian resistance and communication with the international community, internet and telephone services were disrupted nationwide.

It is no secret that Myanmar’s progress toward democracy had faced serious setbacks even before the coup. Since the country embarked on a set of political and economic reforms in 2011, eventually establishing a form of quasi-civilian rule in which the military agreed to share power with elected leaders, it has struggled to solidify protections for fundamental rights and end multiple conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her opposition to military rule, is seen by most people in Myanmar as a heroic and unifying leader. In the 2012 and 2015 elections, the NLD won decisive victories, and in 2015 she became state counselor—the de facto head of the government. But she has disappointed those who hoped she would be a vigorous champion for democracy and pluralism. Over the last five years, she has appeared more concerned with consolidating power for her party and herself than with strengthening democracy and human rights. Her government routinely punished critical speech, and her defense of the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority has rightly drawn condemnation around the world.

The recent coup, however, will do nothing to improve Myanmar’s political stability or economic development, and can only exacerbate problems long associated with the half-century of military dictatorship ending in 2011, such as economic mismanagement, corruption, and frequently brutal approaches to maintaining national unity.

It remains to be seen whether the newly empowered military government will embrace the heavy-handed repression of the past, or attempt to restore some form of pseudo-civilian leadership. Key indicators will include the treatment of pro-democracy politicians and civil society groups in Myanmar, the level of control exerted over the news media and social media, and any change in the government’s approach to minority ethnic groups. Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained leaders have called for nonviolent protests, and on Tuesday evening in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and capital until 2006, residents honked car horns and clattered pots and pans to express opposition to the coup, with some chanting, “Long live mother Suu.”

Freedom House and other human rights organizations have called on the military to release all political prisoners immediately, allow the government and parliament to function free of military intervention, and remove all impediments to the news media and internet service. But there is more the Biden administration and other democratic governments can do to apply pressure and prevent Myanmar from returning to its former status as one of the world’s most oppressive states.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department formally declared the military’s takeover a coup d’etat, triggering a review of U.S. aid to the country. The administration should follow this move with targeted and calibrated sanctions on military leaders and affiliated businesses. It should also closely monitor new arrests and make it clear that the military government will be held accountable for the arbitrary detentions themselves and for any abuse in custody.

The United States must be prepared to support political leaders, civil society activists and journalists who may need to leave the country. In the past, opponents of the military found refuge in neighboring Thailand, but that country has taken an authoritarian turn of its own and may no longer be a safe option.

Finally, the Biden administration should work in concert with fellow democracies to address the situation—the more Asian partners become involved, the better. If other countries initiate steps to persuade the Myanmar military to reverse course, the United States should lend its weight to their efforts.

Our country is far from a perfect democracy, as we were so painfully reminded last month by the assault on the Capitol. But we cannot restore our institutions at home while allowing authoritarians to triumph abroad, any more than we can denounce foreign tyrants while ignoring our own failings. Repression anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, and it is in the national interest to support democracy and human rights around the world.

If the 15-year global decline in democracy is to be reversed, events like the Myanmar coup must be taken seriously and spur the democratic world to action. The United States and its allies should seize this moment to demonstrate—to oppressive regimes and beleaguered activists alike—that it will not sit back and watch the trend of rising authoritarianism continue unchecked.

David G. Timberman

David G. Timberman is director of Asia programs at Freedom House.