Burmese putsch, a delicate test for Biden’s pro-democracy diplomacy

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The military coup in Burma immediately tested the will of new US President Joe Biden to defend democracy around the world, especially as the task promises to be more delicate than ten years ago. years.

• Read also: Burma, a fragile democracy overthrown by the army

• Read also: International convictions after the coup in Burma

The opening of the Asian country after years of closure had been seen as a major diplomatic achievement of ex-President Barack Obama, of whom Joe Biden was the right-hand man.

But the de facto head of the civilian government Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner arrested on Monday by the army, has since lost her status as a democratic icon because of her controversial attitude to the repression of Rohingya Muslims.

In a strong statement, President Biden called on the Burmese military to return power “immediately”. And he threatened to restore the sanctions lifted over the past decade, after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and the sharing of power between the “Lady of Yangon” and the military in favor of an early democratization.

“The United States will defend democracy wherever it is attacked,” warned the tenant of the White House.

Unanimous reaction

During his campaign and since his victory, the Democrat has promised to mark a break from his predecessor Donald Trump, who has flirted with many authoritarian leaders. He also announced that he would organize a “summit of democracies” during his first year in office.

According to Derek Mitchell, the first American ambassador to Burma after the opening, Washington no longer has as many leverage as before.

Because of the “Rohingya crisis”, “we had to react against what looks like genocide, of course, but it was done to the detriment of relations,” he told AFP.

Now president of the National Democratic Institute, he calls for close coordination between the United States and its allies to uphold Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory for the National League for Democracy in the 2020 election.

“His reputation as a global icon of democracy may be tarnished in the eyes of the West. But if you are attached to democracy in the world, you must respect the democratic choice, and it is clearly the choice of the Burmese ”, he pleads. “It is not about a person, but a process”.

For once, the reaction was unanimous in Washington, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, using words similar to those of the Democratic president.

Role of Beijing?

Suzanne DiMaggio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, says the US administration must use that support and resist the temptation of immediate sanctions – a tool that the previous government extensively used, if not abused.

“Burma is an unexpected test for the fledgling Biden administration, which has emphasized human rights and democracy as cornerstones of US foreign policy,” she said. “To quickly send an experienced emissary” on the spot, “with the rare support of the two parties in the US Congress, would be an appropriate first step”.

When Burma began its democratic transition, the United States, under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited the country on a historic visit in 2011, convinced reformists within of the military junta with promises of economic cooperation and the lifting of sanctions. They were able to present themselves as an alternative, for these nationalist leaders, to dependence on China.

Today Washington has less to offer General Min Aung Hlaing, who put an end to ten years of change. The more so as the author of the putsch is already under American financial sanctions and banned from entering the United States because of the repression against the Rohingyas, qualified as “ethnic cleansing” by American diplomacy.

“What more can we do?” Asks Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “We can sanction a few military companies. This can increase the pressure a bit as they are involved in so many sectors of the Burmese economy, ”he adds.

The Biden administration can coordinate its action with Japan and India, close allies who also get along well with Burma.

Beijing’s reaction remains to be seen.

“What’s ironic is that I think China had better relations with Aung San Suu Kyi than with the military,” says Murray Hiebert.

But if the West tightens the screw, the new junta will likely have no choice but to look to China – even as Team Biden has also vowed to “win” the competition with the rival superpower.

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