Long-established democratic structures held firm in the US when an autocratic leader wanted to steal an election, but Myanmar’s quasi democracy dissolved early on Monday morning local time, leaving it yet again under the boot of a junta. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader since the military constitution barred her from serving as President, is back under house arrest, where she spent much of the last 30 years. Pro-democracy leaders have been rounded up. The future looks bleak again.
Myanmar’s generals clearly took advantage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s tarnished global reputation. Her staunch denials that Myanmar’s military was guilty of genocide against Rohingya Muslims revealed a nationalist streak that the West had ignored in its zeal to impose a heroine narrative on Myanmar’s complex political story.
But “the Lady” remains beloved inside Myanmar. And her current plight is a reminder that fledgling democracies need support. Washington has lost focus on Myanmar since former President Barack Obama’s visit to Yangon in 2012, which saw hundreds of thousands of euphoric citizens pour onto the streets. The Trump administration lacked a coherent Southeast Asia policy and cared little about democracy anywhere. Its top officials were rarely seen in a region where showing up is everything. The US stood by as the military in Myanmar’s neighbor Thailand also snuffed out democratic rule.
US President Joe Biden now faces a test of his clout in Asia. He’s already threatening sanctions, but strangling the economy amid the pandemic would cause more pain for its people. As the Myanmar military turns off internet and communications networks, closes banks, and sends soldier patrols into city streets, can Biden corral India, Japan, Australia and the nine other Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to mitigate the severity of the crackdown?
Ultimately, the US response will show how far Biden will go in pursuit of his vow to restore global democracy, or whether he’ll keep lines open to the generals in capital city Naypyidaw as part of the great geopolitical game of countering Chinese influence.