While Americans argued over election results the past few months, scared that the Trump administration would not recognize the results, a similar dispute occurred in Myanmar with little to no international attention. Then early this morning, Myanmar’s military—the losing party—staged yet another military coup, disrespecting the democratic election and abducting the young nation’s leaders. The United States must act swiftly and decisively against these military leaders, not only to preserve Myanmar’s recent democratic gains, including increased religious freedom, but also to inform China that any interference will result in strict consequences.
In the past ten years, Myanmar has made leaps and bounds in its democratic progress, electing Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party twice, most recently in November 2020. The NLD won in a landslide, even though the constitution guarantees that the military, or Tatmadaw, receives 25 parliamentary seats. But the Tatmadaw claims that the election was rigged; in reviewing voter lists, they allegedly found 8.6 million voter-list irregularities.
The dispute reached a fever pitch last week as the Union Election Committee (UEC), which is the highest power over election results, denied the voter fraud claims. On Friday, the Tatmadaw presented its claims to the Supreme Court but did not wait for the results and staged the coup.
Though the Tatmadaw could be acting out alone against its sore defeat, Chinese interference or involvement with this coup cannot be ruled out.
Within the last year, China has sought to strengthen relations with Myanmar. In 2020, Xi Jinping visited Myanmar as the first Chinese president to do so in two decades. He has also heavily pushed the country to cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and to continue increasing trade between the neighbors, which in 2019–20 hit $12 billion. Chief among the BRI projects is a railway to a deep-water port on the Indian Ocean that would allow China to bypass the Malacca Strait. Boldly, Myanmar questioned several of China’s BRI projects, hiring independent reviews of them.
Myanmar relies greatly on China for economic support, infrastructure funding, and now COVID-19 assistance in the form of thousands of vaccines, yet China comes close to taking advantage of Myanmar’s rich resources. While addressing the Chinese pressure on Myanmar that caused a social media spat last July, US diplomat George Sibley points out several grievances. Eighty percent of women trafficked from Myanmar end up in China; narcotics that destroy young Myanmar flow in from China, and Chinese resource mining has caused severe environmental damage.
Further, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar just last week, and the two parties signed several more deals, including one regarding the planned railway. According to Yun Sun, the Chinese director at the Stimson Center, this “shows not only [that] Myanmar is dependent on China, it also shows that China has specific strategic plans regarding the country.”
Additionally, China subjects Muslim Uighurs to what the US has recognized as genocide. Myanmar, even under Aung San Suu Kyi, has also promulgated what amounts to genocide of the Muslim Rohingya at the hands of the Tatmadaw. While this connection between the Tatmadaw and China cannot be ignored, the US must designate the Tatmadaw’s actions (including mass murders, rapes, and torching of villages) against the Rohingya as a genocide. The Biden administration promised to launch a review of the Tatmadaw and the Rohingya, but this new military coup requires an expedited process.
The Biden administration is already facing its first international challenge, not just by a small southeast Asian country with a history of coups, but by a strong power backing the resource-rich and strategic nation. The US must tread lightly, but it can carry a big stick by placing strict economic sanctions on the Tatmadaw once again, offering greater support if the power is returned to the democratically elected NLD officials, and continuing to call out China’s actions regarding Hong Kong, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and the Uighur genocide.