Under the cover of night early on February 1, the Myanmar military detained the Southeast Asian country’s duly elected leaders. Ushering in a period of darkness that threatens to smash the aspirations of the Myanmar people, the coup demands a bold and decisive response from US President Joe Biden’s administration.
By all accounts, the administration has made a strong start in responding to its first major foreign-policy crisis. President Biden immediately called for the military to relinquish power. The White House announced a review of US foreign assistance to Myanmar and committed to working closely with allies and partners to reverse the coup.
These are encouraging first steps, but a bolder approach is needed to alter the calculus of the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, and to demonstrate that the US stands with the people of that country.
First, the Biden administration should call a summit with China to discuss the path forward in Myanmar. Ideally, a US-China summit on Myanmar would demonstrate that the two countries can work together, presenting a united front in opposition to the coup and sending a clear signal to the Tatmadaw on how little room they have to maneuver.
Last week’s UN Security Council statement on Myanmar, to which China agreed, provides a foundation on which to build. There is good reason, however, to be skeptical that China would engage constructively.
The US should be clear that China’s inclination to stand with whoever is in power in Myanmar threatens its own interests. Already protesters have massed outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. And a China-wary Myanmar public could easily turn more hostile toward Beijing’s significant investments and infrastructure mega-projects in Myanmar if China stands with the generals instead of the people on the streets.
Second, Biden should form an international contact group on Myanmar, putting into practice his commitments to restore American diplomacy and a multilateral approach.
With the interests and voices of the Myanmar people as its foundation, the contact group could include representatives from a diverse group of countries and international organizations – Japan, South Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, the UN Secretariat, among others – to address immediate risks of violence, coordinate sanctions that target the military and military-owned enterprises, and undertake discreet diplomacy by countries such as Japan and Singapore that may be more effective in directly influencing the Tatmadaw.
Third, the US should work through and in parallel with the contact group to demonstrate that it stands with protesters’ desire to go beyond a mere reversal of the coup and establish a genuine democracy in Myanmar.
Once the generals are out of power and the duly elected parliament is seated, Myanmar should abolish the 2008 constitution, possibly through a simple parliamentary vote.
Adopting a new constitution would enjoy broad public support in Myanmar, but would also be fraught with risks. The US and its allies must help Myanmar’s parliament find a way to sideline the generals, but earn the buy-in of the Tatmadaw’s foot soldiers, such as through alternative job opportunities and training.
Much as it must look beyond a mere reversal of the coup, the US should also look beyond Aung San Suu Kyi to build a new generation of Myanmar leaders.
For all her flaws – and she has many, not least her inclination toward Burmese Buddhist nationalism and her complicity in military atrocities against the Rohingya – Suu Kyi remains enormously popular and, if freed, may have the opportunity to lead again.
While she may be the only figure in Myanmar with the clout to advance a pluralist vision of the country, lead an inclusive and empathetic peace process, and respect and protect the human rights of all the people of Myanmar, she has shown little capacity or will to do so.
The coup provides the US and others a rare opportunity to look beyond one figure and support a broad-based group of leaders who truly have the best interests of all Myanmar’s peoples at heart.
Finally, the US must lead an effort to ensure the protection of ethnic minorities in Myanmar and the hundreds of thousands of refugees along its borders.
With the Tatmadaw likely to return to tried and true divide-and-rule tactics, the US and others must be clear that violence will not be tolerated, press for a restoration of humanitarian access in ethnic areas, and build upon the nascent ethnic solidarity the protests have unleashed to ensure all ethnic groups, the Rohingya among them, are respected as equal members of Myanmar society.
Dark times lie ahead for the people of Myanmar, but bold US leadership and collective action could yet hasten the dawn of a new day.