Forget Sanctions. Biden Should Show Real Leadership After the Myanmar Coup.

On February 1, the military of Myanmar overthrew the country’s fragile democratic government, arresting civilian leaders, including the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, cutting off the internet and restraining flights. The coup d’état has yanked the country back to a militant regime, like it was before 2011, when a nominally civilian government was installed. 

In response, the new U.S. administration has imposed economic sanctions. These policies are unlikely to affect the regime, but are expected to have a negative impact on the country’s population, adding to the already significant economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising unemployment rates. 

Beyond sanctions, President Biden should put pressure on the Myanmar military, locally known as the Tatmadaw, in other ways. Namely, Biden should actively engage with key actors in the region, especially Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to denounce and counter the coup.

U.S. Interests in the Region

The Biden administration has many interests when it comes to Myanmar. First, the country is a contested economic area with China, a notorious geopolitical rival. The U.S. will try to limit Beijing’s influence in the region.

Second, the current president has emphasized both human rights and strengthening the U.S.’ alliances in his foreign policy program. The way that the U.S. reacts to events in Myanmar will reflect on Biden’s public image and either refute or support his claim that “America is back” as an international leader.

The Damaging Effect of Sanctions

On February 11, Biden announced that he would partially reinstate sanctions that were revoked during Myanmar’s democratic transition. The measures include restricting Tatmadaw generals’ access to U.S. funds, as well as removing export licenses, especially for the sectors of energy, mining and manufacturing.

Biden’s main goal is to send a strong message: that the U.S. considers the new government in Myanmar illegitimate. No matter how clear this signal might be, sanctions are unlikely to impact the Tatmadaw, but could have detrimental implications for the Myanmar population and for U.S. interests.

In the past, economic sanctions such as blocking access to assets and investments caused serious harm to Myanmar. Local industries such as textile manufacturing, fisheries, and agriculture were significantly affected by the limited access to the U.S. market, which obstructed growth and increased unemployment.

Myanmar’s economy is predicted to contract up to 2.5% due to the pandemic. The unemployment rate has increased to 1.71% in December 2020 from 1.58% in December 2019. Additional sanctions would only aggravate the situation.

Meanwhile, the leverage on the generals who seized power would be limited because they possess strong ties to local companies and few overseas interests that could be impacted by financial sanctions.

Previously, the Trump administration had hit four military commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, with sanctions after more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority were forced to run into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017. However, these targeted measures prevented neither the Rohingya genocide nor the February coup. Nothing says that they would be effective now.

Instead, fresh sanctions against the Tatmadaw risk pushing the country further into China’s diplomatic embrace and placing the U.S. at an economic and geopolitical disadvantage in the region, further limiting Biden’s ability to defend protesters and push for democracy. 

What Biden Should Do Next

Biden may have hoped his targeted approach would provide time for U.S. allies to take further action in a strong multilateral effort. But he can hardly claim to be leading the fight to defend global democratic values when his Western allies Canada, the U.K. and the E.U. have put forth only minimal measures such as asset freezes targeted to the coup’s organizers. 

Taking action through the U.N. Security Council will also prove difficult, given that China and Russia would block any resolution that interferes with Myanmar’s domestic affairs.

In order to live up to his foreign policy promises, Biden should now pressure key regional actors to denounce the coup and protect the local population. 

Turning toward Japan is a first important step. Tokyo has important political and business ties with Myanmar and some influence with the military, as well as links with Suu Kyi’s political party. So far, Japan has openly called for the reinstatement of democracy in Myanmar, while restraining from using any concrete measures. However, getting more openly involved would allow the country to prove its dedication to the restoration of democracy and to its sustained partnership with the U.S.

Additionally, Biden should push for proactive engagement with ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member. The bloc likes to avoid commenting on internal affairs, but this time, silence could discredit its international reputation, especially as the military has been using violence against protesters. 

Given the Tatmadaw’s invulnerability to sanctions, the U.S. must do more to lead an effective response to the coup and live up to its claim that “America is back,” especially when it comes to global leadership and human rights.  

Greta Sanna is an LSE M.S. student in Social and Cultural Psychology, with a focus on Middle Eastern and Northern African protracted conflicts. She is currently developing her dissertation on mechanisms of corruption perception and reproduction.

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