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Myanmar Crisis

As US decries Myanmar coup, China remains largely silent

International response split between democracies and authoritarian regimes

A Myanmar soldier guards city hall after soldiers seized the building in Yangon on Feb. 2   © Reuters

BANGKOK/WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- The reaction to the military takeover in Myanmar has highlighted a split in the international community between countries with different values.

The U.S. under President Joe Biden has signaled its intension to step up the pressure on the military. U.S. Department of State officials said Tuesday that it has determined that the seizure of power amounts to a "coup."

The response from other democratic nations has largely been in the same vein as the statement from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling the coup on Monday a "serious blow to democratic reforms" in the country.

Biden called for a unified global stance against the coup, urging the international community to "come together in one voice" to press the military to give up power and release detained officials including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup also drew condemnation from Republicans, with Sen. Mitch McConnell describing the detention of Myanmar's elected officials as "horrifying" and calling for renewed sanctions on the regime.

But other countries have remained conspicuously quiet, including China -- which has incorporated the military in its diplomatic approach to Myanmar -- as well as authoritarian and military-backed Southeast Asian nations that refuse to comment on what they insist is an internal matter.

Biden's statement on Monday suggested that a review and reimposition of sanctions is on the table in response to what he called a "direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law." But there is concern that more substantive measures could deepen Myanmar's isolation from much of the international community and drive it closer to Beijing.

Tuesday's coup designation by Washington makes it difficult for government bodies such as the Agency for International Development to provide economic support to Myanmar, since U.S. law heavily restricts foreign aid to countries where the military has taken power from an elected government.

"I hope and expect the United States will quickly make the obvious legal determination that this is a military coup and impose significant costs on the military for its attack on democracy," McConnell, the former Senate majority leader, said in Congress earlier that day.

Washington's denunciation of the coup stands in stark contrast to Beijing's muted response. Any actions taken by the international community should "avoid escalating the conflict and complicating the situation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Tuesday, implicitly warning the U.S. against interfering.

Myanmar sits in a strategically significant position for Beijing, along the route from inland China to the Indian Ocean. China has provided support for port and power plant projects there through its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

The Chinese government's diplomatic strategy in Myanmar has sought to strike a balance between the country's political and military leadership. When President Xi Jinping visited in January 2020, he met with both Suu Kyi and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power in the coup.

During Myanmar's decades under military rule, China built closer ties to the country by keeping up economic support even as Western nations tightened the screws with sanctions. Its wait-and-see stance toward the coup may be intended to encourage Naypyitaw to gravitate toward Beijing amid mounting condemnation from the Western world.

Meanwhile, responses among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs, have been split between countries focused on democracy and those stressing the principle of noninterference written into the ASEAN charter.

The foreign ministries of Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority democracies, each issued statements Monday expressing "concern" and calling for the situation to be resolved through dialogue. Both countries had previously criticized the crackdown on Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority population.

Thailand, meanwhile, is keeping its distance from what the government says it considers an "internal affair." Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he wants the media to treat the situation with caution to avoid harming the relationship between the two countries.

Prayuth himself rose to power in a 2014 coup that he led as commander of the Thai army, and remained prime minister even after the 2019 general election that returned the country to democratic rule, thanks to support from a major pro-junta party.

Pro-democracy activist groups that demanded the resignation of Prayuth's government late last year have spoken out against the Myanmar coup, and Prayuth's comments likely stem from concern over the matter helping to re-energize the movement.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen took a similar hands-off stance, stating that "Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all."

Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since 1985, came under fire from Western countries after having the country's main opposition party dissolved in 2017, and has forged deeper ties with China in recent years.

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