Myanmar emerged from years of military rule to a form of democracy over the last decade.
While generals still held ultimate power, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party led the civilian government and won November's national election in a landslide. But before Myanmar's Parliament met on Feb. 1, military rulers seized control in a coup, arresting Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders on flimsy charges as they plunged the country back into authoritarianism.
But apparently the military of Myanmar, also called Burma, didn't anticipate the depth of citizen opposition. For weeks, throngs from all walks of society have braved security forces in peaceful protests demanding a return to democratic rule.
The regime responded with relative restraint at first but has reverted to brutality. A bloody crackdown has killed at least 126, including 51 shot (many in the head) just this last weekend. More than 2,000 have reportedly been arrested, with many enduring torture.
The oppression is likely to spiral, especially after protesters burned down some Chinese-owned businesses in Burma. Beijing keeps close ties to Myanmar's military in a quest for natural resources, waterway access and ever-deeper regional hegemony.
China is not the only nation invested in Myanmar. Many others are, too, especially Singapore, which does not have commensurate geopolitical stakes but significant economic ones. Accordingly, the Biden administration should pressure both countries, as well as neighboring nations, to press Burmese leaders to stop the violence and start the process back to democratic rule.
Congress can do its part, too, including an investigation "to define what is the national strategic threat from the coup," Tun Myint, an associate professor of political science at Carleton College, told an editorial writer. Myint, who was a student leader in the 1988 democracy movement in Myanmar, added that the federal government should "at least make sure that any U.S. entities are not empowering Myanmar's military crackdown."
The administration itself has acted with alacrity, condemning the coup and sanctioning some Burmese leaders and businesses that benefit from military rule. It also granted Temporary Protected Status for Burmese currently in the U.S. — a critical move for the many who live in Minnesota.
And the U.S. was among a unanimous group of nations — notably including China — that approved a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence. Yet the Security Council didn't put an arms embargo on Myanmar, in part because China and Russia have veto power.
President Joe Biden promised to reinvigorate alliances during the campaign. One way to fulfill that pledge is to convince regional countries, as well as economically powerful European nations, to join the U.S. in rallying around the Burmese people. Myanmar's version of democracy was far from perfect. Nor was Suu Kyi, a once-hallowed human rights champion who discredited her Nobel Peace Prize by failing to protect the Rohingya Muslim minority from deadly pogroms. But the nations' nascent democracy was far better than the decades of authoritarian rule.
The stakes aren't just high in Burma.
The coup should "lead the United States to really think through the future," Myint said. "To really name the threat to democracy in Myanmar as a threat to democracy everywhere. We are facing that crisis globally speaking. The U.S. has both a historical and presently an ethical and moral responsibility to democracies around the world."