On February 1, 2021 the Burmese military declared a year-long state of emergency. The
country’s civilian leaders, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint were placed under house arrest and many members of Ms. Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, (NLD) have been detained. To give you some idea of the specious nature of the charges against her, Ms. Suu Kyi has allegedly been charged with possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies.
The military takeover has sparked the biggest protests in Myanmar since the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" that helped lay the groundwork for Suu Kyi's eventual 2015 election victory.
Last week, protesters, including teachers and government workers, gathered across the country. In the capital, Naypyitaw, hundreds of workers chanted anti-junta slogans and carried signs supporting Suu Kyi, according to The Associated Press.
None of this is new to Burma (sometimes called Myanmar): It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011 when Ms. Suu Kyi’s persistent but peaceful push for a return to democratic government convinced the military to relinquish control.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 after organizing rallies calling for democratic reform and free elections. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991 and has a particularly loyal supporter in the Senate’s Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
However, Ms. Suu Kyi fell from grace among the chic international set for defending the Burmese military’s tactics in the country’s ongoing battle with Rohingya Muslim insurgents. The battle against the Muslim insurgents in the country’s Rakhine state has sent as many as 700,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh.
Oddly enough, when the Burmese military was using oppressive tactics against the Karen minority, many of whom are Christian, there was little squawking from Democrats in Congress or the international goody-goody set.
Now myopic members of Congress are demanding that the United States “do something” about Burma, and the Biden administration has responded by imposing sanctions on the Burmese military and 10 current and retired generals.
The Biden Treasury Department announced it was freezing U.S.-based assets belonging to the sanctioned individuals. The list includes six members of the newly installed junta, including its head, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, Soe Win. Hlaing was already on a U.S. sanctions list from 2019.
The problem is that none of the American “do something about Burma” crowd seems to have looked at a map lately.
Although it has under-exploited energy resources, Burma has nothing that the United States particularly needs, except its geographic position between Communist China and democratic India.
But Burma does have something Red China needs: oil and gas.
Communist China is already Burma’s largest trading partner. And the Red Chinese are making the most of the current situation by setting themselves up as the brokers of goodwill for the new junta.
Red China and Russia have blocked western-backed United Nations sanctions against Burma, and as Reena Nathan, Kevin Foster and Aldric Chew report for Argus, further U.S. sanctions could push the southeast Asian country further into the embrace of China.
As Argus reported:
Beijing has consistently provided cover for Myanmar in the UN Security Council. "China will likely continue to support Myanmar against western pressure in order to defend its own interests," says Lucas Myers, a programme associate at US-based think-tank the Wilson Center. Those interests include the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project, part of a wider push by China to secure access to the Indian Ocean and reduce its dependence on the strait of Malacca as a conduit for oil imports. The Burma Road oil and gas import pipelines — part of CMEC — carried 200,000 b/d of crude to PetroChina's Anning refinery in 2020, or around 2 percent of China's total crude imports, as well as 4.2bn m³ of Myanmar's offshore gas production to China, making up around 9 percent of China's total pipeline gas imports.
"China just spent the last decade investing time and energy in developing a relationship with the NLD. This means contracts signed. Those are all up [in] the air now," says Simon Hudes, a southeast Asia-focused analyst at US-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China will do what it must to maintain a relationship that continues to advance its business interests, he says.
It will likely be difficult for the US administration to get southeast Asian countries to withdraw investments in Myanmar or engage in strident criticism, Myers says. "The US could sanction individuals or local energy firms in which these other countries are heavily invested, thereby pressuring them to cut ties," Hudes says. But doing so could affect Washington's bilateral relationships with these countries. "So it's a trade-off. We'll see how far the US is willing to go."
Sanctions as the answer to every international disagreement or situation that comes into discord with the “democratic values” of the United States might have made some sense in the late 20th century or earliest days of the 21st century, but an economically rising China has made the more nuanced approach of strategic engagement not just one of many alternatives, but the preferable alternative.
Communist China is our only real military and economic adversary. Letting the Burmese sort out their domestic politics while acting to prevent the country from slipping fully into China’s orbit is much preferable to virtue signaling about democracy while handing Communist China another energy rich client state.
The toll-free Capitol Switchboard (1-866-220-0044), call your Representative and Senators, tell them Biden has it all wrong and sanctions will only drive Burma closer to Communist China.
Biden foreign policy
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi
President U Win Myint
National League for Democracy (NLD)