The United States and the Myanmar Crisis: Broad Interests, Constricted Responses
The United States has leaned heavily on traditional policy instruments, primarily sanctions, to manage the political crisis in Myanmar. Currently, it remains unclear if Washington will go beyond the limited scope of past practice.
More than four months after the historic coup in Myanmar, the United States — a beacon of democracy and exporter of democratic values — is still finding its feet in the political and diplomatic morass created by the latest crisis.
The coup on 1 February deposed a democratically elected government and led to the imprisonment of its leaders. This has resulted in widespread civilian resistance, the formation of a shadow National Unity Government, and that government’s alignment with leading Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) fighting the military in the country’s border regions. The EAOs have increased attacks against military forces.
The junta has responded harshly with over 800 killings, nearly 4,000 detentions amid reports of torture and shooting of peaceful demonstrators. The junta’s plan for elections next year after making constitutional changes in line with military prerogatives is superseded by a massive crisis. Given the deteriorating security, economic, and public health conditions, it is forecast that the country will face protracted armed conflict, sharp economic decline, widespread impoverishment and Covid-19 infections. This in turn will result in criminal gangs filling governance voids and largescale refugee flows impacting neighboring states.
There are long-standing elements in Washington’s approach towards Myanmar. US government policy toward Myanmar seeks “a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of all its people”. But broader and arguably more important US policy interests take into account Myanmar’s central location in Southeast Asia. The dynamic region is a key area in US policy in the Indo-Pacific region — the latter deemed to be the most important region for the United States.
US policy stresses a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all countries prosper as sovereign, independent states. The policy emphasises free, fair, and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, good governance, and freedom of the seas. There is a deeper subtext here: like the Trump Administration, the Biden administration views Chinese government behavior as posing numerous serious strategic challenges to American interests in Asia. More broadly, China is deemed to represent the most important foreign danger to the United States. Given that China is also the most important foreign power influencing developments in Myanmar, Beijing figures prominently in American calculations of US interests there.
Whether the Biden government will go further and take significant action related to the Myanmar crisis in support of its broader concerns in the Indo-Pacific, including rivalry with China, remains uncertain.
Thus far, the Biden Administration has responded to the crisis in Myanmar with a number of sanctions and restrictions. It has redirected US$42 million in aid that would have benefited the Myanmar government to programs supporting civil society there. It has imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions against the coup’s leaders and their family members and strengthened export controls against military-linked holding companies. Washington has also restricted the military’s ability to transfer central bank assets held in the United States and suspended all trade-related diplomatic engagements. It has made Myanmar citizens resident in the United States eligible for Temporary Protected Status. The United States has also sought to help coordinate multilateral responses, including through the U.N. Security Council, the Group of 7, and other fora. It has endeavored to alleviate hardship among the people of Myanmar and would presumably be open to offering more.
US emphasis on sanctions and restrictions is sometimes seen as ineffective in targeting abusive military leaders in Myanmar but it is broadly supported in Congress and the media and has a long history. Such sanctions and restrictions were severe for decades until they were eased during the reforms and eventual elections leading to the establishment of a civilian-led government in 2016. A new set of sanctions and restrictions were imposed on that government’s military leaders who carried out what was widely seen as ethnic cleansing and genocide in driving out over 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh in late 2017.
Whether the Biden government will go further and take significant action related to the Myanmar crisis in support of its broader concerns in the Indo-Pacific, including rivalry with China, remains uncertain. The Biden administration has supported ASEAN efforts to stop the violence and mediate the crisis. This is consistent with the US government’s avowed support for ASEAN centrality in US policies dealing with Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration’s rejection of perceived Trump administration unilateral and disruptive policy behavior, and Biden’s support for steady engagement with allies and partners in multilateral efforts to deal with important problems have been widely welcomed in ASEAN and among its member states.
In practice, however, the US government has been criticised for not paying enough attention to ASEAN and consulting with its member countries. In its first months, the Biden administration leaders have had extensive high-level consultations with Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, leaders from Europe and even Taiwan. But Washington has not had much consultation with ASEAN, and even less so with individual ASEAN states.
During a meeting in early May with the foreign minister of Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urged ASEAN to press the Myanmar coup leaders to implement the five point consensus reached by ASEAN leaders on 24 April. The document calls on the junta to end the violence, start a dialogue between the opposing parties and appoint an ASEAN special envoy to mediate the dialogue process.
The Myanmar regime’s commitment to the consensus has remained weak (in the eyes of an Indonesian analyst, the Tatmadaw has used the April meeting as a “propaganda tool while backtracking from the consensus.”) ASEAN is reportedly seeking ways to engage China and the United States to strengthen ASEAN centrality in dealing with the Myanmar crisis. Unfortunately, a scheduled meeting with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in late May was cancelled because of last minute technical difficulties. On 7 June, China’s foreign minister hosted a meeting with ASEAN counterparts. At that meeting, three ASEAN countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — expressed disappointment that Myanmar had not kept the five point consensus.
Given the complexity of the Myanmar issue, there is not much evidence to show that the new US administration will go beyond the limited scope of past practice in dealing with the current Myanmar crisis. In short, the US may have a broad template of interests on the issue of Myanmar, but its responses thus far have been restrained, if not constricted. Mr Biden’s predecessor Barack Obama was criticised for reportedly using the phrase “leading from behind” on the issue of the Libyan War in 2011. The earnest hope of many in Southeast Asia is that Mr Biden, his Democratic successor at the White House, will not go down the same path on the issue of Myanmar.
Robert Goodwin Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University.