Myanmar’s nominal transition to democracy ended abruptly on Feb. 1 when the military arrested the civilian government and seized power. This coup was the most egregious among the three in the country’s modern history. The military claimed it was acting in response to election irregularities, but the charges it later imposed on elected leaders — the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of illegally importing walkie-talkies, for example — were preposterous. Of course, the Burmese military leaders’ actual goal is to nullify the results of the November 2020 democratic election.
The United States, which on Jan. 6 experienced an insurrection designed to nullify the results of its own free and fair election, promptly condemned the Burmese military’s actions. President Biden declared the situation a national emergency and ordered the government to take steps to prevent Burmese military leaders from using $1 billion in assets held in the United States. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, later expanded sanctions to include individual members of the Burmese military.
These are good first steps, but the United States can go further.
First, the Biden administration should work with the European Union, the United Nations Security Council and allies to impose a substantial arms embargo against the Burmese military. More than 130 nongovernmental organizations around the world have called on the Security Council to take such action. Such a move would cut the supply of weapons, tanks, trucks and planes that are being used to crack down on peaceful protests throughout the country. More than 60 people have been killed by Burmese military police since the unrest began last month.
In addition to constraining the supply of weapons to the Burmese military, the United States can use its relationship with Singapore to prompt change in Myanmar. Singapore is both an ally of the United States and the largest foreign investor in the Burmese economy. The United States should ensure that companies that do business in America are not also doing business with Singaporean companies that have interests in Myanmar.
Last month, members of Congress introduced resolutions in the House and the Senate to condemn the coup in Myanmar and to call for the democratically elected leadership to return to power. Since President Biden rightly designated Myanmar’s crisis “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” in his executive order, he should also ask Congress to investigate how the Burmese military’s actions endanger the security of the United States.
After the coup, the U.S. Agency for International Development said it is redirecting funds previously designated for the legitimately elected Burmese government. Mr. Biden’s administration should ensure that the money goes to support the civil disobedience organizations in Myanmar, as well as local nongovernmental and civic organizations that provide public health services and distribute food in the country.
The Burmese military spent much of the past three decades operating under economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Military leaders have recently made clear they are not afraid of blanket sanctions. But while the military may not fear sanctions, coup leaders have responded violently to courageous protesters.
The current crackdown on protesters echoes the military’s violence against the pro-democracy movement of 1988, which I experienced as a high school student living in Yangon. My father, a farmer who was jailed repeatedly for speaking out, had taught me the importance of resilience in the face of repression, so I joined the protest. The military responded with a massacre. I fled, along with close to 10,000 other student activists, to the forested areas along the border with Thailand. Eventually I made my way to the United States, where I now teach political science, social change in Southeast Asia and the challenge of establishing democracies.
Unlike the activists of my generation, today’s young leaders have known both the torment of oppression and the buoyancy of a democracy that, however flawed, represented real progress. As children and young adults, they watched the military open fire on protesting monks during the short-lived Saffron Revolution in 2007, and just eight years later they saw the opposition National League for Democracy take control of the government. Today’s activists are among the millions of young people who voted for the first time in the 2020 election and refuse to have that power taken away.
The United States needs to support the people of Myanmar not only because lives are in danger, but also because the rise of autocratic governments around the world threatens the survival of democracies everywhere.
Tun Myint (@DrTunMyint) is an associate professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. He was a student leader of the 1988 democracy movement in Myanmar and is a co-founder of Mutual Aid Myanmar.
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