Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar. And now that it has removed the decade-old façade of gradual democratization by detaining civilian leaders and seizing power, Western calls to punish the country with sanctions and international isolation are growing louder. Heeding them would be a mistake.
The retreat of the “Myanmar spring” means all the countries of continental Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar – are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. More fundamentally, the reversal of democratization in Myanmar is a reminder that democracy is unlikely to take root where authoritarian leaders and institutions remain deeply entrenched.
Given this, a punitive approach would merely express democratic countries’ disappointment, at the cost of stymying Myanmar’s economic liberalization, impeding the development of its civil society, and reversing its shift toward closer engagement with democratic powers. And, as in the past, the brunt of sanctions would be borne by ordinary citizens, not the generals.
This is a realistic scenario. US President Joe Biden has warned that the military’s action “will necessitate an immediate review of our sanctions laws,” followed by “appropriate action.” But Biden would do well to consider how US-led sanctions in the past pushed Myanmar into China’s strategic lap, exacerbating regional-security challenges.
Sanctions are a blunt instrument. Thailand’s army chief, with the support of an increasingly unpopular king, has remained ensconced in power in civilian garb since staging a coup in 2014. If the United States can do business with Thailand, where a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has extended to the use of a feared lèse-majesté law to imprison those who insult the royal family, why hold neighboring Myanmar to a higher standard?
Likewise, the US, India, Japan, and others have established close defense ties with communist-ruled Vietnam. Indeed, the US boasts that in recent years it has established a “robust security partnership” with Vietnam. Only by opening lines of communication and cooperation with Myanmar’s generals can democratic powers hope to influence developments in a strategically important country.
In the past decade, as Myanmar’s democratic transition unfolded, the West neglected to build close relations with the force behind it – the military. Instead, the prevailing Anglo-American approach centered on Aung San Suu Kyi, making her bigger than the cause. That neglect persisted even after Suu Kyi fell from grace over the fate of the country’s Rohingya Muslims, many of whom fled to Bangladesh and some to India during a brutal military campaign to flush out jihadist militants waging hit-and-run attacks.
The West’s lopsided approach eventually contributed to this month’s coup. Today, the US has little influence over Myanmar’s military. The coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, General Soe Win, were slapped with US sanctions 14 months ago over the expulsion of the Rohingya. But in responding to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang that it labels “genocide,” the US has spared top Chinese military and party officials, imposing largely symbolic sanctions against lower-ranking functionaries.
Despite their uneven effectiveness and unpredictable consequences, sanctions have remained a favorite – and grossly overused – instrument of Western diplomacy, especially when dealing with the small kids on the global bloc. Non-Western democracies, in contrast, prefer constructive engagement.
Japan, for example, has a partnership program with Myanmar’s military that includes capacity-building support and training. Likewise, India’s defense ties with Myanmar extend to joint exercises and operations and supply of military hardware; recently, it gave its neighbor its first submarine. Such ties also seek to counter China’s supply of arms and other aid to Indian tribal insurgents through rebel-controlled northern Myanmar.
Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In 2010, while the US was pursuing a sanctions-only approach to Myanmar, then-President Barack Obama criticized India’s policy of constructive engagement with that country. But within months, Obama embarked on a virtually similar policy, which led to his historic visit to Myanmar in 2012.
Crippling US-led sanctions from the late 1980s paved the way for China to become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor. But in 2011, Myanmar’s bold suspension of a controversial Chinese megaproject, the Myitsone Dam, became a watershed moment for the country’s democratic opening. It set in motion developments that reduced Myanmar’s dependence on China, balanced its foreign policy, and spurred domestic reforms.
Today, nothing would serve Chinese interests more than new US-led efforts to isolate Myanmar, which serves China as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean and important source of natural resources. In fact, renewed sanctions and isolation would likely turn Myanmar into another Chinese satellite, like Laos, Cambodia, and Pakistan. As Japan’s state minister for defense, Yasuhide Nakayama, has warned, that outcome would “pose a risk to the security of the region.”
US policymakers must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. They should perhaps be most worried by how sanctions have forced Russia to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into becoming close strategic partners. And China has been the main trade and investment beneficiary of US sanctions against Iran.
In this light, the US must take a prudent approach to Myanmar. When Biden has expressed a readiness to cooperate with the world’s largest autocracy, China, in areas of mutual interest, he should at least pursue a similar approach with a far weaker Myanmar, where the military is the only functioning institution.
To help influence Myanmar’s trajectory, Biden has little choice but to address what US officials have recognized as a weak spot in American policy – lack of ties with the country’s strongly nationalist military. The US must not turn Myanmar from a partner into a pariah again.
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