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Opinion

Biden's Myanmar policy needs to factor in Obama's mistakes

Three questions for a new administration

| Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019: Suu Kyi has gone from revered to reviled.   © Reuters

Curtis S. Chin is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. He is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.

Less than two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden's rhetoric and commitment to human rights and the messy reality of democracy worldwide are being put to the test in Asia.

Not via Hong Kong or the Korean Peninsula, but in Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, seized power early on Monday after finally losing patience less than a decade after it launched the country's transition to democracy.

Announcing their intent to rule "for at least a year," Myanmar's military leaders have presented the Biden Administration with a number of difficult questions that it must ask itself.

First, to what degree are Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken willing to assess and learn from the actions and mistakes of the past, including those of the Obama administration?

While many of Biden's nominees are yet to be confirmed, the policy outlines when it comes to Asia are increasingly clear. And if people are indeed policy, then it seems we are seeing the makings of a third Obama term.

In addition to Blinken, key appointments include a top architect of Obama's opening to Myanmar, Kurt Campbell, as Asia policy czar, as well as Jake Sullivan, who served as national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, as National Security Adviser.

After issuing a statement calling out the coup as a "direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law," it will be important that Biden not find himself in another "red line" situation akin to the one that marred the Obama administration's Syria policy.

U.S.-Asia interests will not be well-served by an administration that is more bark than bite, and, as Secretary of State Blinken well knows, trying will not be enough if rhetoric and reality do not match when it comes to Myanmar.

Second, in pushing for a return to pre-coup status, to what degree are Biden and Blinken able to lay the foundations to "build back better" when it comes to Myanmar? Simply stated, the old normal in Myanmar was far from great.

Over the course of a decade of democratization, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from revered to reviled. Her defense at the International Court of Justice in 2019 that allegations of genocide against Myanmar's Rohingya community were incomplete and misleading, only solidified her fall from grace in the eyes of the West.

While the Trump administration mostly shied away from tougher actions against Myanmar, it did impose sanctions targeting Myanmar's top military leadership in 2019, including against Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief now calling the shots in the capital Naypyitaw.

Preserving the ability to engage with Myanmar's military leaders while imposing additional sanctions will not be easy without broad-based international support. This is made all the more difficult in an Indo-Pacific region that is pragmatic and often more focused on economic interests than human rights and democracy.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, pictured in July 2020: preserving the ability to engage with Myanmar's military leaders while imposing additional sanctions will not be easy.   © Reuters

Media reports in China, Myanmar's largest trading partner, noted simply that Myanmar had "reshuffled its Cabinet," a striking example of Beijing's desire to remain engaged in a nation already wary of its intent.

In seeking to build international support for Myanmar's return to democracy, Biden must recognize that the still immensely popular Suu Kyi is not the only leader it should engage with. It must also focus on strengthening institutions and nurturing a diversity of young political leaders.

This must include working with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, now chaired by Brunei, to support its call for "dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar."

Thirdly, even as Biden rightly seeks to promote a return to democracy, it must ask what can be done to help the long-suffering people of Myanmar before democracy returns. Such aid must focus on all of Myanmar's most vulnerable communities, including the Rohingya.

Any resumption of sanctions should assess the consequences for continued engagement and impact on those most in need. During my time as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010, my remit included speaking out against any efforts to resume lending to Myanmar given its military regime.

Much has changed since then, with nearly all U.S. sanctions and restrictions finally lifted in October 2016. The ADB commenced reengaging with Myanmar in early 2012, and from 2013 to 2019 the bank committed loan and grant projects totaling $2.4 billion.

Before the U.S. revisits such support at the ADB and other institutions including the World Bank, it should "also think about Myanmar's poor," as respected Burmese writer and historian Thant Myint-U tweeted this week.

Biden's call for the international community to present a unified response to the Myanmar coup is correct in terms of both intent and strategy, but in this first test of his Asia policy, Biden must recognize the limits of American power and influence in Myanmar in the short-term.

As the new president shapes and executes a strategy for all Asia and the Pacific, he must understand that the path to improved human rights and strengthened democracy is no easy journey, and will take more time than any of us would like.

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