Myanmar coup: Few good options for US and other Western nations

Men walk in front of the Sule pagoda in Yangon, on Feb 1, 2021.
Men walk in front of the Sule pagoda in Yangon, on Feb 1, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The Joe Biden administration is reviewing its options to deal with its first foreign policy crisis - the coup d'etat in Myanmar.

But it is finding few good ones.

The same applies to the United Nations Security Council, which met on Tuesday (Feb 2) as it considered issuing a resolution condemning the military coup on Monday - but without China's agreement, could not. China, as one of the five permanent members of the Council, has a veto.

Separately the Group of Seven (G-7) - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the US - said: "We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law."

In Washington, a legal determination that Monday's seizure of power is a coup d'etat has triggered a review of US relations with Myanmar.

A State Department official, in a call with journalists, said: "A very small circle of Burma's military leaders have chosen their own interests over the will and well-being of the people."

"As President Biden has said, we will take action against those responsible, including through a careful review of our current sanctions posture as it relates to Burma's military leaders and companies associated with them."

The official said the vast majority of US assistance, however, goes to humanitarian and civil society organisations - and that will stay.

Several of Myanmar's generals, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and two entire army divisions, are already under sanctions over human rights abuses in Rakhine state. The US has labelled abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority a genocide.

Certainly there are calls for broader sanctions, which remain on the cards. Companies linked to Myanmar's military - for example Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corp, with interests in banking, gems, copper, clothing and telecoms - are most likely to be targeted.

But equally, there is an awareness in the policy community that broad sanctions imposed previously and lifted in 2016 did nothing to persuade the military to change its path.

"Simply piling more sanctions on the Burmese military won't solve this problem," Mr Daniel Russel, a former top US diplomat for East Asia under the Barack Obama administration, told Reuters.

"Sustained and skilful diplomacy, both bilateral and with partners, is needed to defuse the crisis and to chart a path back to democratic governance and reform in Myanmar."

The Soufan Centre, a global security consultancy, said in an e-mail: "The United States, the European Union, and other Western nations have limited influence in Myanmar, having previously followed an approach based on isolating and penalising the junta.

"China and its Asian partners have, on the other hand, pursued quiet engagement while publicly asserting their traditional unwillingness to interfere in the internal affairs of the country."

"China remains incredibly sensitive to any criticism over its own repressive government… thus, it will argue strongly to respect countries' sovereignty, even as the governments of these countries perpetrate rampant human rights abuses, even to the point of genocide."

In the immediate term, the bottom line is that diplomatic pressure, political condemnation, an international coalition and economic sanctions will not reverse the coup d'etat.

"Economic sanctions… will be more a statement of our principled position than an effective tool to change the Burmese military's position," Ms Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times. "It will also punish the people before it punishes the military."

That the coup d'etat reverses what was considered a foreign policy win of the Obama administration, poses a particular challenge.

"Western support for Myanmar's putative civilian government began with a high-profile initiative led by then President Obama… as far back as 2012," Dr Chris Ankersen, associate professor at New York University's Centre for Global Affairs, wrote in an e-mail.

"The Biden administration has announced a 'new pivot to Asia'. This is a first test of how it will respond," he said.

"The real question will be how far the Biden administration is willing to go in terms of support for democracy and human rights, two issues that the Trump administration was not keen on."