Sanctions Against Myanmar: Struggle for Democracy and Human Rights or Geopolitics?

The situation in Myanmar has become a “test for the Biden administration,” as it forced it to choose between geopolitical and ideological interests. So far, Biden has chosen the former, seeking to be consistent in his human rights policies at home and abroad and to meet the expectations of the electorate. But this crisis is also a test for China, for which the issue of protecting its economic and political interests in strategically important, writes Anita Mujumdar, Junior Research Fellow, Center for Sanctions Policy Expertise, Institute of International Studies, MGIMO University.

On February 1, after 10 years of democratisation, a military coup took place in Myanmar. The country’s de facto leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has fought for democracy since the 1990s, has been detained. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, who was previously accused by the UN of genocide against the Muslim Rohingya people, came to power. Within 10 days, the United States imposed sanctions against the coup participants, their property and assets. Canada and Australia joined the US. Measures included bans on the supply of weaponry and transactions with certain individuals, the freezing of assets, etc.

This is not the first time that Myanmar has been subject to US sanctions. It was once a pariah state for a period which lasted more than 20 years: in the late 1980s, when the military junta was in power, it was subject to strict sanctions; the United States went as far as to completely ban the import of Burmese goods. It was precisely “progress in the field of democracy” that became the main argument for lifting pressure in 2016.

Now the junta is in power again, and the US has decided to reintroduce sanctions, stating that the coup poses an extreme threat to Myanmar’s national security. On the one hand, such actions are predictable. Why, then, has the western media labelled the coup behind the crisis in Myanmar an “early test for the Biden administration”?

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Myanmar between the US and China

The fact is that the balance of power in Southeast Asia has radically changed since the 1990s. The US position in Myanmar is not as strong as it used to be, and it is necessary to coordinate efforts with other powerful players in the region, primarily China and the ASEAN countries. China, however, did not support the position of the Western countries and blocked the UN Security Council resolution condemning the coup, calling the change of power “the country’s internal affair”.

China’s reasons for making this decision are not so univocal. Many wrote that China is the “biggest loser” of the coup because its relations with the military have not been very good in the past. Although an economic corridor was launched between the countries under the Belt and Road Initiative, Burmese generals blocked many of China’s infrastructure projects for fear of excessive economic dependence (only 9 out of 38 projects were approved). In addition, China was consistently accused of supplying weapons to rebels and terrorists, and inciting hatred. Relations with the Burmese democrats began to take shape better: at least they promoted infrastructure projects much more successfully. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that the Chinese ambassador stated that the current situation is “not at all like China wants to see”: it would be in China’s interests to continue to cooperate with the democrats, not with the junta.

In any event, China made its decision with good reason: it was an attempt to find a balance between political and economic risks. Several factors played a role.

The first factor is a geopolitical one. Experts note a clear trend of the past two decades: when the United States and other Western countries try to put pressure on the ASEAN countries under the pretext of democracy promotion and the protection of human rights, they inevitably turn towards China. A striking example is the military coup in Thailand in 2014, from which China emerged victorious, and the United States lost ground. Earlier, a similar situation occurred in Fiji, where a military coup took place in 2006. A number of Western countries imposed sanctions, and China supported the new government. Beijing helped in the development of the country’s infrastructure and economy, and received great gratitude from the prime minister. Thus, by acting according to the established working model and supporting the Myanmar military against the US sanctions, China has secured itself a good strategic position.

Economic reasons are also important. Myanmar is extremely important for China, being its main supplier of rare earth metals, copper, tin and a number of other minerals — its share in Chinese imports of these items ranges from 75 to 95%. The support of the new government is a guarantee of the security of these supplies. Another important point for China is the Myanmar-China economic corridor. While relations with the military on this issue have not worked well in the past, China may now hope that good relations with the new government will help open the door to its initiatives. One way or another, because of the economic corridor, it is important for China to have good relations with the authorities in Myanmar — no matter who rules there. It is also important that in 2021 Myanmar will assume the role of the coordinator between ASEAN and China, which may also affect the development of the corridor.

Finally, there are internal reasons. China has taken a rather cautious stance on Burmese issues in the past, refraining from harsh judgments. For example, in 2017 it blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, which led to the flight of more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh. There were several reasons for this. First, the situation with the Rohingya people in Myanmar as a whole resembles the situation with the Uighurs in China, so it is generally not beneficial for China that Western countries and the UN Security Council interfere in the affairs of other countries to protect human rights. Second, China borders Myanmar, and plays an active role in the affairs of this country; it does not want to see additional participants. During the violent hostilities in the 2010s, China hosted many refugees from Myanmar, and also participated as a mediator in the settlement of the internal conflict between the army and ethnic groups. Considering this, it may be more beneficial for China if the situation in Myanmar should be settled “on its own”, without the active intervention of Western countries.

Interestingly, Russia has historically held positions similar to China, always opposing sanctions and harsh language against the government of Myanmar. In 2017, for example, Russia, along with China and a number of other countries voted against the UN Security Council resolution condemning the genocide in Myanmar, urging others “not to speculate on the topic of genocide against the Muslim population in Myanmar”. Russia took a similar position in 2021, refusing to condemn the change of power. It is also worth noting, that since the days of Khrushchev, Russia has always had good relations with Burmese generals, and now Myanmar is actively importing Russian weapons.

The ASEAN countries have also taken positions similar to those of Russia and China. Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia did not condemn the coup, calling it an internal affair of the country. Indonesia moved further than others, proposing at a closed-door meeting of ASEAN countries to oblige the military to hold elections within a year and allow democratic forces to participate (although Burmese protesters do not support this idea, insisting instead that the results of previous elections be respected).

Thus, given this balance of forces, it is clear that by imposing sanctions against Myanmar, the United States partly risks its strategic interests, pushing the country into the arms of China and Russia.

This is a good “test” — whether Biden chooses values (“defence of democracy around the world”) or the geopolitical interests of the United States (preservation of geopolitical positions). It seems that despite realising the complexity of the situation, Biden has nevertheless chosen values. Why? The reason may lie in the high demands and high hopes that the American and European public expect from the new US president.

Human rights and Biden’s new policies

Donald Trump was accused of “spitting upon human rights”. Claims were made regarding a variety of issues: the withdrawal of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council, the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico and the detention of migrants in terrible conditions, and blocking of the UN Security Council meeting on human rights violations in North Korea. Much attention was devoted to Trump’s position on the Uyghur issue. Former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his book that Trump, in an informal conversation, supported the construction of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, saying that this was “that what is needed” (Trump himself denied the contents of this book). And later, when Trump imposed sanctions against China for oppressing the Uyghurs, the public and the media saw this as just a political manoeuvre to put pressure on Chinese trade policy.

Therefore, many human rights activists (for example, the head of Human Rights Watch) began to turn to Biden with a request to start respecting human rights again and make them the cornerstone of domestic and foreign policy. There were also more specific requirements: for example, Knox Thames, former adviser on religious minorities at the US State Department, in an article in Foreign Policy expressed the position that Biden’s duty is to become a defender of Muslim minorities around the world (here it is worth explaining, that one of the points of criticism of Obama’s human rights policy was that it was paid insufficient attention and ignored the Muslim issue). Knox Thames stated that “only the United States is strong enough to fight back dictators and give a new life to an ineffective UN Human Rights Council”.

From the very beginning, Biden began to pay great attention to human rights. He decided to return the US to the UN Human Rights Council, open borders to 125,000 refugees and end support for the war in Yemen. He officially called China’s actions against the Uighurs “genocide.” In this context, the sanctions against Myanmar are becoming clear: there is great demand from the public for “human rights protection”. Perhaps, for a president who just came to power, it is worth justifying the expectations of voters, even with geopolitical risks.

What’s next?

Having roughly understood the alignment of forces and the motivations of the parties, it is worth talking about what the consequences of the coup and the imposition of sanctions may lead to in the future. The population of Myanmar reacted badly to the change of government: hundreds of thousands of people are participating in protests and strikes, demanding the return of the democratic government. The protests are being violently dispersed by the authorities, and the number of victims is growing. Facebook and Wikipedia are blocked in the country; the authorities also block the Internet every day from 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. It is difficult to say how the protests will end, but many experts hope for help from China and the ASEAN countries in resolving the conflict.

It is also not yet clear how this situation will affect the Rohingya. General Min Aung Hlaing promised to advance the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and to provide protection to the returned Rohingya, although people are afraid to return, fearing a repetition of genocide. The previous government was also not very successful in resolving the Rohingya issue and did not provide them with adequate protection, so, in a sense, for this group of people, it makes more or less no difference who is in power in Myanmar. There is even an opposite point of view that the coup will improve the position of the Rohingya, because the population of the country will unite against a common enemy — the military.

The consequences of Western sanctions are also, so far, quite ambiguous. On the one hand, they are much less stringent than those that were put in place starting in the 1980s. Therefore, they are unlikely to lead to the desired results. On the other hand, significant measures are being introduced against the assets of the military, and in conditions where the military are owners of many local enterprises, such sanctions can still have a very negative effect on the country’s economy.

Summing up, we can note that the situation in Myanmar has really become a “test for the Biden administration,” as it forced it to choose between geopolitical and ideological interests. So far, Biden has chosen the former, seeking to be consistent in his human rights policies at home and abroad and to meet the expectations of the electorate. At the same time, one can hardly expect that unilateral sanctions by Western countries, without the support of regional forces and the UN Security Council, will be able to have any real impact on the Burmese generals. But this crisis is also a test for China, for which the issue of protecting its economic and political interests in strategically important. So far, it seems that China has successfully passed this test — its cautious position may not only help it to further strengthen its position in the country, but also allow it, along with the ASEAN countries, to play a key role in resolving the conflict.

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