Foreign Policy Brief # 105
The Myanmar Crisis Reflects a Geopolitical Contest for Influence
By Brandon Mooney
April 1, 2021
As the world sees rampant authoritarian rollbacks against progressive and democratic freedoms, perhaps no country stands out more in the current moment than Myanmar.
As the world sees rampant authoritarian rollbacks against progressive and democratic freedoms, perhaps no country stands out more in the current moment than Myanmar. For those that have not been tuned in to the realities on the ground over the past two months, the Burmese military has seized power, arrested dissidents and political opponents, and fired upon and killed unarmed civilians to name but a few crimes. Although the Western democratic world and many other world governments have either condemned or expressed concern over the coup, regional powers in Southeast Asia have been reticent about denunciation and many have signaled that they see it as an internal matter for Myanmar to deal with on its own.
If we are to understand the motivation for the Burmese military’s takeover, we must first take a quick look back in history. Enduring almost 65 years as a colony, Myanmar was granted its independence as the British colonial empire crumbled following World War II and Allied forces freed it from a brief period of Japanese occupation. However, bucking the yoke of foreign servitude did not bring stable civilian-control, as the country would suffer through nearly 53 years of an army-led junta, with two separate military coups wresting control from democratically elected governments.
Finally, in 2011, a transitional democracy was established, with the conservative but still pro-democratic National League for Democracy party winning significant victories. Yet the Burmese military did not cede all of its powers, still hanging on to a decent portion of seats in the new government and significant appointment powers. The entire situation is further complicated by a continuous, over 70-year-long civil war between five different ethnic states and various smaller ethnic groups fighting individually against the Burmese military (and ostensibly the national government) for a variety of political goals ranging from full independence to enlarged regional autonomy. There is also the not-so-insignificant historical and contemporary ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingyas by both government and extra-judicial groups, which has spawned a refugee crisis and numerous accusations of crimes against humanity.
But let us somehow put all of that history aside to look at the events of the most recent coup d’état by the Burmese military. After an absolutely colossal defeat in the 2020 elections, the military claimed that there was rampant election fraud, and after the cries of foul play were put down due to lack of evidence, it declared a state of emergency and followed what is now a pretty standard “coup handbook.” Cue the arrest of various political opponents, potential dissidents, and anti-military speakers. Cue shutting down the borders, imposing a curfew, limiting Internet access, restricting civilian communication, crafting policies reducing freedom of speech. Cue the instatement of martial law across the country, police raids, and the expulsion of the enemy party from the capital.
All of this was met with and continues to be met by momentous civilian protest and civil disobedience in the face of brutal repression, with soldiers even firing live rounds at demonstrators. Much like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the revolts of the Arab Spring, and many others like it in recent memory, the Burmese people are rising up.
I will not bother hiding my bias here, I support the protestors. As an advocate of democratic freedoms, I fail to see how you could not. Therefore, I will not spend any time discussing whether it is in U.S. foreign interest to support civilian-controlled governments because it simply is as long as we claim to stand for such ideals (although I would argue that we as a country have a staggering amount to atone for on our end when measured against them).
What I find far more interesting is the rather mixed international reaction to the coup. All of the usual Western democracies have called most strongly for an end to Burmese military rule, ranging from Australia to Germany to the U.S. However, almost every country in Asia has said that they are concerned but have asked for only dialogue between the military and deposed government. Myanmar’s direct neighbors have either remained neutral on the issue or signaled acceptance of the new military rule, with Thailand welcoming the army’s foreign minister and even being accused of supplying Burmese troops. Russia was an unsurprising absentee from criticism. South Korea, Japan, and Singapore have asked for a halt on the use of lethal force against civilians.
In fact, two days ago, India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand sent representatives to a Burmese military parade. It was officially reported that during that day, 90 civilians were killed. Out of these eight states, five are bordering Myanmar and all rank low on a scale for democracy barring one: India. India has interestingly stalled on deporting Burmese police defectors back to Myanmar. Yet there has been no official statement on where the Indian government stands on the issue, only vague motions that point to a regime unsure of where it should land. India will no doubt be a target destination for many of those fleeing the Burmese army, as it is a growing economic and political player in Southeast Asia and has already taken on a significant portion of Rohingya refugees. It has political leanings that put it at odds with the military junta and although the Modi regime is worryingly right-wing nationalist, it probably wishes for a less oppressive neighbor. The support of Burmese military rule by China, Russia, and Pakistan must be weighing heavy as well, with Pakistan and China being considerable regional threats and Russia having a recent history of supplying aid in return for fealty to struggling authoritarians.
We should watch India’s moves carefully when it comes to Myanmar, as its refusal to lockstep with other democracies and the lack of strong condemnation by Asian allies suggests that regional power may be a far more critical puzzle piece in understanding policy than believed under the model of U.S. international hegemony. America’s power is weakening in the face of China’s rise and Trump’s America has done much to destroy what reputation we had, but the situation in Myanmar may be a telling example of what is to come.
SupportMyanmar – a great resource for advocacy, updates on the ground, and jumping-off point for getting involved more directly
Find Your Legislator – government resource for finding your legislators. Write them a letter, email, etc. showing your support for the protests