Washington was very much at the forefront of this rush, with the Obama administration deciding to fully reestablish ties with Myanmar after years of treating it as a pariah, heralding Myanmar’s shaky road to semi-democracy as among its major foreign accomplishments. For President Joe Biden, Monday’s developments mark an early challenge for his own administration, which is stocked with officials who played key roles developing and executing Obama’s Myanmar policy. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Asia czar,” was a major architect of Obama’s reworked approach to Myanmar and helped to engineer U.S. reengagement, before pivoting quickly, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to pursuing private business projects in the country. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the country in 2015, when he was deputy secretary of state, telling officials about the importance of “continued political, economic and social reforms” to ensure sustained democratic change, but, in a concession to his hosts, refrained from using the explosive word Rohingya.
Biden said in a statement that the U.S. would hold the military accountable and that it was reviewing sanctions, many of which were lifted in 2016, a move celebrated by his then boss. Yet it is unclear if, after trying economic sanctions, increasing engagement, building business links, and proselytizing about the merits of democracy, any international forces—positive or negative—will change the behavior of Myanmar’s generals, who appear to follow only their own whims, logic, and calculations.
Much as the American calculus has changed, so too has the landscape within and around Myanmar. Suu Kyi, once a darling in Washington who could call up members of Congress at her leisure, now finds herself more isolated. Her cultivated image almost completely dissolved internationally after her defense of the military’s actions and her indifference to the plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups. This week’s coup will undoubtedly serve to rehabilitate her standing, but significant damage has already been done. China’s role has changed, as well. Beijing has been steadfast in its support of the military, but only when it had no other option. Suu Kyi’s isolation from the West in the post-Obama years has seen her move closer to China, which has cultivated her as a reliable friend who could help further its economic interests in her country. The instability that will inevitably follow the coup, including in the restive border region between China and Myanmar, will irk Beijing, and its response will be crucial to what comes next.
In many ways, Monday’s takeover—which follows military coups in 1962 and 1988—is uniquely its own: Some Facebook users in Myanmar changed their profile pictures to black, while others were more direct, posting a graphic reading “FUCK THE COUP.” Reporters in Yangon roamed the city streets, tweeting their observations when the internet held up. By Tuesday evening, calls for mass civil disobedience were circulating online. All of it was a testament to the liberalization of the telecom sector and new press freedoms that were pushed through in recent years.
But there is also a sense of déjà vu, in both the U.S. and Myanmar. Once again, Washington is worried about pushing the country into the arms of China, and debating the merits of sanctions. And in Myanmar, minds are being cast back to 1990, when, after being roundly defeated by Suu Kyi’s party at the ballot box, the military tossed out the results. It would be another 25 years before free and fair elections returned.