Myanmar coup is test for Biden and US role as champion of democracy

Washington: US President Joe Biden condemned a military coup in Myanmar on Monday, calling the takeover “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” – and setting up an early test of whether recent efforts to overturn the US presidential election will weaken its role as a global champion of free and fair voting.

“In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election,” Biden said in a statement, suggesting that the United States may impose economic penalties and urging a coordinated international response.

People hold up images of Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a protest outside Maynmar’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit:Getty

The coup unseated a fragile civilian government and posed a test for Biden – and more broadly, for the United States as an advocate of democratic values worldwide. Critics have warned for months that former president Republican Donald Trump’s repeated, baseless claims of fraud in the US election, culminating in a deadly assault on the Capitol a month ago, could be used to undermine the American position abroad.

Biden, who proclaimed at his inauguration that “democracy has prevailed,” has pledged to return the United States to a leadership role in condemning anti-democratic actions worldwide, even as most of his administration’s energy is focused inward on the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said, using another name for the country. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.Credit:AP

The Myanmar coup – whose uniformed leaders claim, like Trump, that a recent election was stolen through fraud – follows the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a subsequent Kremlin crackdown on street protests in which thousands were detained.

Biden condemned the treatment of Navalny during a phone call last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has not moved to apply sanctions.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov on Monday called the police response to Sunday’s pro-Navalny protests “harsh but lawful,” and rejected White House calls for Navalny’s release.

“As to the statements made by US representatives on the unlawful demonstrations in our country, I repeat that we are not ready to accept and listen to such statements of the Americans and will not do so,” he said.

Myanmar is a test for US President Joe Biden.Credit:AP

In Myanmar, the military coup leaders, in detaining the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, used language that echoed Trump, who left office without conceding defeat. Some of Trump’s supporters had discussed declaring martial law to keep him in power, and Trump encouraged a crowd of supporters who carried out an attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, urged Myanmar’s military to “immediately release” the civilian leaders, and said the United States should “impose costs” on those who stand in the way of democracy. McConnell was not specific, but the United States could reimpose sanctions on Myanmar that had been lifted over the past decade and push for the country to be expelled from international bodies.

Myanmar’s military said on Monday that it had taken control of the country and declared a state of emergency for a year, after detaining Suu Kyi and others from her ruling National League for Democracy.

“Reports that Burma’s military has rounded up civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and key civil society figures are horrifying, completely unacceptable and obviously a saddening step backward for Burma’s slow and unsteady democratic transition,” McConnell said.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to dispute Trump’s election loss denial – and now is calling for the generals in the Myanmar coup to accept their nation’s election results.Credit:AP

After the US election in November, Democrats and others had criticised McConnell for not disputing Trump’s claims of election fraud quickly and forcefully.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Washington stands with the people of Myanmar in their “aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace and development.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was similarly forceful, saying the United States “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

Biden was briefed Sunday by Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Psaki said.

Burma is another name for Myanmar, which began to emerge from years of authoritarian military rule in 2011 with the coaxing of the Obama administration. Biden, as vice-president at the time, applauded the democratic gains and has rehired some of the US officials who worked to promote Suu Kyi’s movement.

Suu Kyi received a Nobel Peace Prize for her years-long battle against her country’s authoritarian rulers. But in recent years, she has faced sharp criticism for supporting the military’s onslaught against the country’s Rohingya minority.

Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the US rapprochement with Myanmar and the lifting of US sanctions on the country, is Biden’s top official for Asia policy on the National Security Council.

After working on opening the country, Campbell left the government in 2013 to start a consulting firm that joined a bid for a contract to revamp Myanmar’s largest airport, a deal worth $US1 billion over 30 years.

The bid failed, along with broader US efforts to scale back the power of Myanmar’s military and solidify democratic gains after the 2015 election that ushered Suu Kyi and her party to power.

Now, human rights organisations are calling on the United States to reimpose sanctions that had been lifted in the hopes of improving Myanmar’s behaviour, unlinking it from China’s sphere of influence and allowing U.S. businesses to compete there.

“It is essential the Biden administration work closely with other countries to send a strong and coordinated message … imposing strict and directed economic sanctions on the military leadership and its enormous economic conglomerates,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

But the Biden administration will need to balance such calls with concerns that overly tough actions could push Myanmar further into the arms of China. Worries about losing influence in Myanmar have factored into the State Department’s considerations of declaring the country’s persecution of the Rohingya minority a genocide, US officials have said.

More than 750,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since military forces cracked down on the Muslim minority group in 2017. Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed by state security forces, according to nongovernmental organizations.

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo called the military campaign “ethnic cleansing,” but he stopped short of declaring it genocide. Blinken told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that the Biden administration would conduct an interagency review of whether Myanmar’s actions amount to genocide.

Following the detainment of Suu Kyi and other political leaders, Blinken issued a statement on Sunday night calling on Myanmar’s military leaders to “release all government officials and civil society leaders.”

Washington Post

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