A sign with the image of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is carried at a demonstration against the military coup in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon on February 12, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sai Aung Main

Less than a month in the job, US President Joe Biden faces his first real international crisis in the Myanmar military’s toppling of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government on February 1.

Washington has responded by calling on the junta to release Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders from detention and imposing limited new sanctions on coup leaders including commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

But calls are already rising for the Biden administration to take an even tougher stance, one that would send a clear signal that his government will truly prioritize rights and democracy in its foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the wider world.

“It would be difficult to find a more classic ‘it’s now or never’ moment,” said Bradley J. Murg, senior advisor and distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Indeed, a perceived as limp response to the democratic reversal in Myanmar would signal to other authoritarian governments that they too could push forward their own repression of political opposition without suffering significant US consequences.

Several military officials were already sanctioned by the former Trump administration for their role in a brutal clampdown against the Rohingya minority that the UN has characterized as “genocide.”

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

The new US sanctions, imposed on February 10 against individuals and organizations that played leading roles in the coup, include export controls and the freezing of US-based assets of sanctioned individuals and almost US$1 billion in US-based Myanmar government funds.

After the US dropped its previous sanctions and normalized relations with Suu Kyi’s elected government in 2015, Washington increased its scrutiny of the region’s other repressive regimes, namely Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in Cambodia, said Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.

Now that democratization has been reversed in Myanmar, the shift could benefit other authoritarians since Myanmar’s pariah status once again “relativizes their own repression,” Strangio added. 

The transition from decades of military dictatorship to elected rule in Myanmar had convinced US policymakers that democratization was possible in Southeast Asia, adding zeal to their efforts to promote liberal change elsewhere in the region. Indeed, the Barack Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, deemed Myanmar’s transition as among its top foreign policy achievements.

Now, Myanmar’s democratic deterioration could produce the opposite effect: a despondency in Washington over how its efforts have had little bearing on long-term change in the still mostly authoritarian region.

Biden vowed on his campaign trail that he would restore human rights and democracy-building as central to US foreign policy, a departure from the Trump administration’s emphasis on realpolitik deal-making.  

President Joe Biden has promised to put rights and democracy at the front of his diplomacy. Photo: AFP / Roberto Schmidt

The Trump administration sought to restore good relations with Thailand’s military coup government and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s rights-abusing regime, both of which the Obama administration had jousted with on rights-related issues. 

In a phone call to Duterte just three months after he took office in 2017, Trump praised the Philippine leader’s brutal war on drugs, now the subject of a possible crimes against humanity case at the International Criminal Court. 

But even if the Biden administration ratchets up more pressure on Myanmar’s new military junta, that doesn’t mean it will apply equal pressure on Southeast Asia’s other autocratic governments. 

“Certainly, the Biden administration’s response to the Myanmar coup will be a test of its avowed intention of re-centering human rights and democracy promotion in US foreign policy,” said Strangio. “But what Washington does on Myanmar will not necessarily determine how it chooses to respond elsewhere.”

Indeed, Biden is likely to continue with the decades-old US tradition of tolerating Vietnam’s communist government, by most measures the worst abuser of human rights in Southeast Asia. 

Since the George W Bush administration, successive US administrations have failed to take action against Hanoi because of its geopolitical role as a major opponent to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

Neither is the Biden camp likely to resurrect hostilities with Thailand’s military-cum-civilian government, nor the Duterte presidency at a time renewal of the crucial Visiting Forces Agreement is on the table. 

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the US-based RAND think tank, says that from his conversations with Southeast Asian interlocutors “US-led punishment over democracy and human rights concerns is very unlikely to play well in the region.” 

Grossman says Southeast Asian countries are tired of being lectured to on democracy, while they are still reeling from the sense that the Trump administration upbraided them over political issues yet didn’t assist them enough with problems at the top of their own agendas.

On the other hand, if US pressure does enforce change in Myanmar by restoring the democratically-elected NLD government to power, the reversal through pressure could embolden the Biden administration in its democracy-building efforts. Much depends, then, on whether US efforts work to reverse Myanmar’s coup.

Protesters hold signs as they block a road during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 17, 2021. Photo:Sai Aung Main/AFP

The military junta has maintained power despite US sanctions, which fall short of impacting the country’s state-run firms or preventing the new regime from cutting off Internet access, a key means of stymieing how protestors arrange anti-coup demonstrations. 

Major military-run firms, including the sprawling Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp conglomerates, both de facto controlled by Min Aung Hlaing, have not yet been targeted by US sanctions. 

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said there could be further sanctions if “violence against peaceful protesters” continues. So far only one protester has been killed in the junta’s escalating clampdown on the anti-coup demonstrations.

More diplomatic pressure could be on the way. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is rumored to arrive in Southeast Asia next month for talks with regional governments. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has vowed to do everything possible “to make sure that this coup fails”, while the UN Human Rights Council condemned the coup last week. 

But Japan, a major investor in Myanmar, and the EU have so far failed to follow the US in imposing new sanctions. If Washington is unable to build a coalition of democratic governments to jointly pressure Myanmar’s junta to reverse the coup, it will have less chance of success. 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has traditionally avoided even speaking about political issues in member states, has been surprisingly more vocal than usual. 

On February 1, the new chair of the bloc, Brunei, issued a statement calling for “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

RAND’s Grossman says that the wording of this statement suggests that “ASEAN is certainly worried and is aligning its statement, perhaps more so than ever before with the West.” 

“I also found it intriguing that the Singaporean foreign minister recently weighed in on Myanmar, stating that potential sanctions should not harm the Burmese people,” Grossman added. “In other words, and parenthetically, he is leaving the option open for supporting sanctions if the punishment targets only the military junta.”

Protesters hold signs during a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. Image: AFP

The one big question mark is China. Analysts who spoke to Asia Times noted that the relationship between Beijing and the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, is complex. 

The Chinese government was probably unhappy with the coup as it was building leverage and winning contracts with Suu Kyi’s government. “The current situation is absolutely not what China wants to see,” Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, said on February 15.

On the other hand, Beijing’s interest in making allies with any form of political leadership means it will likely accept the new regime and bid to continue business as usual. The Chinese government has not condemned the coup and ambassador Chen said this week: “We have friendly relations with both the NLD and the military.”

Significantly, the military junta said on February 16 that it will restart controversial hydropower dam projects, possibly including the stalled Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam.

The announcement fueled the suspicions of anti-coup protesters that Beijing had prior knowledge of the putsch. Protesters staged a raucous rally in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon, leveling various allegations against Beijing and its ties to the junta.  

“On balance, China certainly has more influence in Myanmar, but the Tatmadaw may not have been its first pick to lead the nation,” said Grossman. 

Myanmar’s crisis hasn’t yet become part of the wider competition between the US and China for dominance in Southeast Asia, although Washington’s overt opposition to the coup could provide space for Beijing to carve out space with the junta, analysts say. 

In that event, the question of how the Biden administration deals with democracy and human rights issues in Southeast Asia will become further ensnared in its geopolitical struggle with China. 

That competition hasn’t been fruitful for democratic progress in the region as successive US administrations have tolerated human rights abusers that serve American geopolitical interests or toned down criticism of authoritarian governments to prevent them from drifting towards China.