Washington – Since Myanmar’s military seized control of the government from the National League for Democracy (NLD), hundreds of people have been killed by security forces during anti-coup protests. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was also detained on spurious charges together with other democratically elected leaders.
In addition, the modest democratic progress the country made during the period of awkward coexistence between the NLD and the military over the last decade appears to have been completely wiped out.
The instinctive response of the U.S. toward the humanitarian crisis — based on its foreign policy DNA — is to slap on sanctions.
The Biden administration, which places particular importance on human rights, has swiftly adopted such sanctions against the country’s military leaders, including the two adult children of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and other business entities controlled by the military.
Furthermore, the U.S. is pressing hard on other nations to fall in line. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “they (foreign governments and business) should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means to denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people.”
But the question is, will this approach elicit the desired response?
Advanced democracies in the West, including Japan, share a strong sense of indignation at and disapproval of the military leadership’s power grab. The West is demanding the release of political detainees, including Suu Kyi, whose removal from the political stage seems to be the primary goal of the coup.
A critical question for the U.S. and Japan — who form the most important security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region — is to urgently calibrate what realistic options they might have to stop the bloodshed in the short term; restore social stability and economic activity over the intervening term; and achieve gradual democratization in the long term.
Unfortunately, sanctions have a poor track record. Slapping on more sanctions might give American policymakers some solace that they are doing something to make the situation better in Myanmar. However, even policymakers themselves would agree that sanctions will probably not produce major policy changes in the country.
David Steinberg, a distinguished professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University, who is considered one of the most astute observers on Myanmar and U.S. policy in Asia, summarizes the lack of efficacy of sanctions as such: “The new series of sanctions in 2021 are far more targeted and sophisticated than previous ones but U.S. and Western leverage is extremely limited … . The imposition of sanctions is unlikely to bring regime change, which was the policy of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in the 1990s and 2000s.”
After all, Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, is a proud organization and heavily involved in the country’s politics. The military firmly believes it is the true guardian of the country and a source of unity. The military is a cohesive unit that has shown no signs of breaking rank since its founding in 1945. The military leadership is one of most reclusive in the world, not traveling overseas and owning no assets outside the country. As a result, it has been greatly insulated by the U.S. sanctions.
Regrettably, sanctions could worsen the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar further by pushing one of the poorest countries in the region into economic collapse.
Myanmar’s per capita GDP is the lowest among the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, despite its population being the fifth largest. As Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations peacekeeper and previously a member of Myanmar’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council, said: “Targeted sanctions will not shift the generals’ core political calculations. Broad sanctions could do enormous economic damage and would devastate the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people.”
Also of great concern is that sanctions might indirectly lead to increased casualties among protesters by unintentionally prolonging the demonstrations. The young protesters strongly yearn for democracy, as they have grown up in relative freedom from around 2009. They are better educated on political matters; more capable of mobilizing using modern tools of communication; and are more social media savvy and capable of spreading their message to the world than previous generations. They are aware of the limitations of the military authorities and are steadfastly defiant, as a widely used slogan clearly indicates: “You messed with the wrong generation.” However, they may be grossly overestimating their capabilities vis-a-vis the military.
If sanctions leave protesters feeling a false sense of solidarity with the West over regime change, they may pay dearly for that mistaken notion.
Myanmar also presents an incredibly complex set of problems.
Domestically, the country is experiencing a horrible humanitarian crisis and is in the midst of great political turmoil. However, these are only parts of some very complicated issues that Myanmar has been facing for a long time as a result of the decades-long rule of the military dictatorship.
Internationally, Myanmar presents tremendous geopolitical problems. It sits at a strategically important location between China and India. Myanmar is particularly important for Beijing, which hopes to gain direct port access to the Indian Ocean. China is also Myanmar’s largest trading partner, accounting for 33.2% of its total trade — the highest such dependence on China among the ASEAN countries.
Here, the U.S. and Japan should work together on the Myanmar issue, taking into account these complex domestic and international elements. Unfortunately the challenges faced have no short-term solutions.
First, despite having good intentions, the U.S. and Japan, by focusing solely on humanitarian issues and regime change, must realize they will only prolong the military’s control in Myanmar and increase its reliance on China.
Second, the U.S. and Japan must work closely with ASEAN, which has uncharacteristically decided to hold a special summit to address the situation in Myanmar. The special summit suggests that the regional association regards the situation in the country as a serious threat to its collective legitimacy and interests. While the ASEAN chairman’s statement on Myanmar did not specifically mention the military, it did touch on democracy, rule of law, good governance, human rights and the freedoms enshrined in the ASEAN charter. The statement provides a foundation on which the U.S. and Japan can work with the group.
Third, the U.S. should consider the fact that Japan has stronger leverage over Myanmar, as it does with the ASEAN countries, having more investment and commercial ties in the region, as well as having provided more development assistance. It also has also formed relationships with leaders in both the military and the NLD.
The only realistic way to bring about political, economic and social progress in Myanmar is to engage, not to isolate. Japan should play a role in working with both the U.S. and ASEAN to encourage the military to hold dialogue with the NLD and protesters to stop the violence, release political detainees and get the country back on the path of democratization while avoiding publicly humiliating the military.
Fourth, the U.S. and Japan should try to engage China and India in dealing with Myanmar. China has enormous strategic and commercial interests in the country, some of which may not align with the strategic and commercial interests of the U.S. and Japan.
Still, there may be some room to work with Beijing. China wants a stable Myanmar, particularly along their mutual border areas. China also may be interested in securing the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom it has a very good relationship. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Suu Kyi last January, the two leaders signed 33 memorandums of understanding, which included economic projects that are within the framework of the “China Myanmar Economic Corridor.” In addition, China is being careful not to appear to be openly supporting the military’s actions there in order to preserve its image among the ordinary people of Myanmar.
India also has an interest in preventing China from dominating Myanmar and gaining free access to the Indian Ocean. As India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the foundation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, together with the U.S., Japan, and Australia, New Delhi should be invited to work with Washington and Tokyo on Myanmar.
One thing is clear, there is only so much foreign countries can do for Myanmar. Ultimately, the country must help itself.
Myanmar is a test case for the U.S. and Japan to see if they can work together within the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision while coordinating with ASEAN and possibly China and India as well.
Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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