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Myanmar coup will reverberate far beyond Southeast Asia

Crisis is first high stakes test for Biden's relationship with ASEAN

| Myanmar
A screen grab from Myanmar state television footage on Feb. 1 shows Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing reading a statement: the Tatmadaw will not want to be dependent on China.   © MRTV/Reuters

Bilahari Kausikan is former Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The shock announcement early on Monday that the Tatmadaw, the official name of Myanmar's armed forces, had detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and several other top National League for Democracy leaders and declared a state of emergency -- a coup in all but name -- is the first high stakes test of the Biden's administration's relationship with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

How the U.S. responds to the situation in Myanmar and, equally important, how ASEAN responds, could set the future trajectory of the relationship in ways that may be difficult to change. This has implications that extend far beyond Southeast Asia. Both sides seemed to understand this, at least for now.

Brunei, the current ASEAN chair, is acutely aware that inaction by ASEAN is not an option. Doing nothing could irretrievably damage ASEAN's credibility with the new administration. Brunei is currently consulting other ASEAN members on a joint statement.

This is a necessary stage in how ASEAN works. The Brunei Foreign Minister, Erywan bin Mohd Yusof, is a very experienced ASEAN hand. He will expect Myanmar to block consensus on a joint statement, as indeed it already has, arguing that a statement is premature. But he also knows that there is always the option of the chair issuing a statement on Myanmar as ASEAN has done in the past. But Brunei has to let the process play out before issuing a chair's statement. And he has, in record time, done so.

Soldiers stand guard at a military checkpoint on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

Initial statements from the White House and State Department expressed strong disapproval of the Tatmadaw's action and solidarity with the Myanmar people. This is the least the U.S. could say under the circumstances. Significantly, however, there was no knee-jerk threat of sanctions or to dial down the level of diplomatic representation. This keeps U.S. options open and suggests that for all its emphasis on democratic values, the Biden administration has not lost sight of the broader strategic context of competition with China.

From the Tatmadaw's violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in the late 1980s up to the first decade of the 2000s, Myanmar was an albatross around the neck of U.S.-ASEAN relations. The imposition of sanctions and isolating Myanmar during that period did nothing to change the situation on the ground and only drove Myanmar into China's arms.

The Tatmadaw is strongly nationalist and has no intrinsic affinity with China. Historically and up to the present day, the Tatmadaw has viewed Beijing's support for the Burmese Communist Party and ethnic insurgencies with grave suspicion. Given other options, the Tatmadaw will not want to be overly dependent on China. Arguably the most significant achievement of the first Obama administration was the normalization of relations with Myanmar, without which its pivot to Asia and the deepening of relations with ASEAN would not have been possible. That the second Obama administration did not follow-up this strategic window of opportunity in its ASEAN diplomacy is another matter.

Kurt Campbell, now coordinator for the Indo-Pacific in the White House, and Assistant Secretary of State in the first Obama administration, was the architect of the opening to Myanmar. He is aware of the futility of isolating Myanmar -- two decades of sanctions did nothing to change the Tatmadaw's behavior -- and the continuing, indeed, even greater validity of the strategic considerations given the enhanced competition with China.

With his long experience of the region both in the Pentagon and State Department, Campbell must also remember ASEAN's constant counsel of patience and its prediction that Myanmar nationalism would eventually lead to a loosening of its political system to create more space for its diplomacy and alternatives to China, but at its own pace and in its own way provided the Tatmadaw did not feel threatened.

Neither ASEAN nor the Biden administration is out of the woods yet. A coup is never good. But the situation in Myanmar is volatile and fluid. It could well take a far worse turn. Widespread violence in the streets could make any sort of ASEAN statement feeble if not entirely moot.

The Biden administration could face pressures for harder action both from Republicans out to embarrass the administration and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Will they listen to Campbell? Congress is not an institution renowned for its ability to take a long-term or strategic view. As developments in Myanmar play out, it would be prudent for the U.S. and ASEAN not to forget that no external party has much influence in Myanmar and that Myanmar's future lies in Myanmar's hands.

The two key players are still State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the military's commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. They have more in common than many think. The former's response to the Rohingya crisis had made clear that she is no icon of liberal democracy and the record of her first term revealed that, reluctant to delegate authority, she got herself mired in the small details of governing but was unable to provide the strategic direction her country needed.

Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, pictured in March 2016 at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw: they have more in common than many think.   © Reuters

Prior to the November 2020 elections, Myanmar was not an ideally governed democracy. Like it or not, the Tatmadaw was and still is the best functioning institution in a largely dysfunctional state, a power that can never be ignored. Both are stubborn nationalists whose instinctive response to a political problem is not to compromise.

Both Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw are inclined to regard the ordinary Myanmar-in-the-street, whether Bamar or ethnic minority, as subjects rather than citizens. Ultimately this is much more about power than principle.

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