In Myanmar, government officials from Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as President Win Myint, have been arrested following a bloodless coup by the Myanmar military.
The military-supported opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been claiming fraud in the general election of November 2020 for some time. After seizing power, military chief Min Aung Hlaing installed first vice president and former military commander Myint Swe as acting president, and put State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi under detention.
Ms Suu Kyi has been China’s ally for years and the “democratic” government has in fact become a reliable agent for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to reach the Indian Ocean.
US and Chinese responses to the coup
So far, the coup seems to be an internal exercise by the Myanmar military to regain control of the country, with no evidence of instigation by the US or China, or any other major powers.
The US White House immediately issued a statement denouncing the action and calling on the military government to release Ms Suu Kyi, while China’s statement was neutral and mild, only expressing the hope that constitutional governance will resume in Myanmar.
If the US had instigated the coup, the White House would not have released such a statement. On the other hand, Ms Suu Kyi has been China’s ally for years and the “democratic” government has in fact become a reliable agent for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to reach the Indian Ocean. Hence, China would have even less reason to overthrow Ms Suu Kyi, unless there was unknown information, such as discovering that former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been in covert contact with her in recent years.
While Ms Suu Kyi is a veteran leader elected by the people of Myanmar, in 2017 the Myanmar military led the suppression of the Muslim Rohingya minority at its borders, which resulted in heavy casualties, leading to condemnation from the West and calls for Ms Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.
While the Rohingya tragedy was happening, the West — including the US — hoped that Ms Suu Kyi would take a humanitarian stand. In this unrealistic expectation, they were disappointed. And cutting ties with Ms Suu Kyi pushed her closer to China, signing cooperation agreements on the BRI.
Myanmar and Thailand are among the few officially recognised Buddhist countries in South Asia, and the feeling of isolation and threat from being surrounded by Muslim countries is not something that the privileged left wing in the West would understand.
This coup shows the naivety and short-sightedness of the left-wing governments and opinions of the West. Myanmar has an issue with Bangladesh over the Muslim Rohingya refugees; as an elected leader of a Buddhist Myanmar, Ms Suu Kyi has to handle the issue according to mainstream sentiment. Myanmar and Thailand are among the few officially recognised Buddhist countries in South Asia, and the feeling of isolation and threat from being surrounded by Muslim countries is not something that the privileged left wing in the West would understand.
Of course, Myanmar’s elected government should have adopted a more humanitarian approach to handling the Rohingya minorities in Rakhine state near the border with Bangladesh. Ironically, Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD has been accused of racial segregation and bloody right-wing politics. The public execution of Rohingya by the Myanmar military has destroyed Ms Suu Kyi’s decades-long image of being a humanitarian, and her defence in an interview in 2013 has only been to claim that “Buddhists have also been subjected to violence”.
The military government is actually also waiting for recognition and support from the US government. It is prepared to work with the US and India to better contain China’s movements towards the Indian Ocean.
Will the US’s idealism push Myanmar towards China?
Geopolitics is complex, and the Myanmar situation is awkward for new US President Joe Biden.
First, if the US sees China as an opponent and threat to the security of the Indian Ocean, it should be quietly glad of Ms Suu Kyi’s ousting. The military government is actually also waiting for recognition and support from the US government. It is prepared to work with the US and India to better contain China’s movements towards the Indian Ocean.
What is important is how the strategies of the US and China in South Asia will change — that is the crux for the whole of East Asia.
However, Biden’s predecessors Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton strongly supported Ms Suu Kyi leading Myanmar towards democracy, and saw Myanmar as another testing ground following the Arab Spring movement. Ms Suu Kyi’s story even became a Hollywood movie. Who would have thought that after she came to power, her image would suddenly take a turn, and become that of a “fascist” suppressing the disadvantaged Rohingyas? The current stance of the Biden administration shows that this Democratic government — only dozens of days in office — seems to be going for moral idealism over realistic global and national interests.
If the military government does not receive the blessing of the US, there is a high chance that it will then lean towards China, which is why China’s foreign ministry spokesperson took a mild stance, ready to bring the military government into the fold if the opportunity presents itself.
Whether there was election fraud in Ms Suu Kyi’s victory or whether Myanmar’s future will be democratic is in fact no longer important, and can be left to liberal academics to discuss. What is important is how the strategies of the US and China in South Asia will change — that is the crux for the whole of East Asia.
This article was first published in Chinese on CUP media as “緬甸政變與拜登的選擇”.
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