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Burma Bleeds | The Outlook of Democracy In Southeast Asia - 3 15 2021 11 17 47 AM

The increasingly brutal suppression of what was left of Burmese democracy raises at least two geo-strategic questions: how does the bloodletting in Burma (Myanmar) end? And what role is China is playing in a region back-sliding in every indicator of democratic governance? 

Given the tortured history of democracy in Myanmar, the move by the military was predictable. Armed forces leaders claimed “fraud” in a November 2020 election widely viewed as fair and that gave the National League for Democracy party of Aung San Su Kyi an overwhelming victory. The Burmese army declared a “one-year emergency,” and military rule was quickly imposed on February 1st

Southeast Asia as a region has been regressing democratically for well over a decade.

In its most recent ranking of “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House last month did not categorize a single member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as “totally free.” Indeed, of the 10 ASEAN members, half (Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) were all placed in the lowest, “not free” category.   

With at least 70 dead already in wide-spread protests, will Burma continue to bleed? Unfortunately, history provides little cause for short-term optimism.

Myanmar’s military is currently armed to the teeth, and over the years, in a series of brutal suppressions of democracy since the country gained independence in 1948, the armed forces have demonstrated little sympathy for democracy activists. 

Of late as well, they have shown a remarkable indifference to sanctions. Bolstered by at least $1 billion in profits siphoned from oil and gas exports, and with a parallel social structure that cushions the Burmese military from civilian disruptions, democracy will not be quickly restored.  

Yet at least a partial restoration of democracy seems essential to restoring calm, a move the Myanmar military has approved in the past by granting limited electoral freedoms - as long as the armed forces maintained legislative dominance!

To push the military toward this end, the US is likely to deepen the targeted sanctions it has already imposed on the Myanmar junta – hopefully to be joined in this push by the UK, Canada, Australia and the EU. And the UN will almost certainly empower a mediator or special emissary, to work a softer approach.

Predictably, however, strong language from the UN condemning the coup was stymied late last week not just from the usual suspects (Russia and China), but also from India and Vietnam.

If these collective efforts are unsuccessful, it’s not hard to predict the future: when the Burmese military launched its coup in 1962, it took 49 years before military rule was curtailed! 

China, of course, by the simple reality of its physical and economic dominance in the region, will be key to any successful UN or diplomatic overture to the Burmese generals.

But to be clear: Beijing didn’t foment the February 1st coup; nor did it play any role in the Thai military’s take-over in Bangkok or the rise of dictatorship in Phnom Penh. 

Beijing already had strategic access through Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal long before the coup; an impressive Chinese-built road and pipeline to the port of Kyaukpyu is an important link in the PRC’s multiple “Belt and Road” economic corridors.

As with most governments in their neighborhood, the Chinese want market access and stability on their border. The form of government is largely irrelevant as long as Chinese firms have access to markets and regional governments refrain from criticizing Chinese policy in any form.

Unfortunately, ASEAN littoral states on the South China Sea have been facing a PRC island-grab for decades; this predatory behavior by Beijing is the core geostrategic worry for the US and its Indo-Pacific partners as they look to the ASEAN region.

Myanmar by virtue of its geography has been insulated from this particular land-grab; but it is not insulated from strong Chinese interest in securing resource corridors, to underpin future economic PRC growth.

Whether there is a democratic government in Naypyitaw (capital of Myanmar) or a dictatorship is secondary for Beijing’s leaders to the primacy of continued, secure resource access.    

In his first speech as Secretary of State last month, Antony Blinken highlighted the priority the Biden administration attaches to democracy promotion around the globe. Blinken stated that the U.S. will “encourage others to overturn bad laws and stop unjust behavior; we will incentivize democratic behavior.”  

With an increasingly brutal coup in a part of the world the Biden administration views as strategic, and coming just eleven days after President Biden’s inauguration, how Biden and Blinken “incentivize” democracy in Myanmar will be an early test of U.S. international credibility and leadership.