In defense of democracy in Myanmar

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. 

On the first of February, the military seized control of the Southeast Asian country in a bloodless coup. The new leaders arrested the democratically elected leaders, cut phone lines, and in order to prevent protest organizing, it blocked access to Facebook.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Military rule is nothing new in Myanmar/Burma. After declaring independence from Great Britain in 1948, a military coup 14 years later gave the military power for decades. Brief periods of democracy followed, although the military never fully relinquished power.

Joining us now to help make sense of the latest political upheaval is Dan Blumenthal. He is director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. And the author of The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State. 

Good morning, Dan!


REICHARD: We’re talking about this in terms of a coup, yet the military has maintained significant control over the country since the last coup in 1962. It might be helpful to understand how Myanmar’s government is structured. Can you explain that?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, in 2009 there was a restructuring where the U.S. opened relations with Burma again and there were democratic elections, in fact, not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but over the last few years there have been democratic elections and real problems with democratic-elected government and some of its human rights abuses, awful human rights abuses. But this is a military coup. The democratically elected government has been overthrown by the military.

REICHARD: Aung San Suu Kyi’s party led the democratically elected government. She lived under house arrest for almost 15 years under the last military junta. She won the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years ago for her pro-democracy efforts. And then in 2015 her party won a majority of seats in parliament and she became state counsellor, essentially prime minister.

But then in 2019 she defended the military against allegations of genocide against the Rohingya. So is she a champion of democracy or not?

BLUMENTHAL: She is a champion of democracy in Burma, but obviously what she did with respect to the Rohingya is awful and should definitely be — and she has gotten international condemnation for that. But, again, they were the democratically elected government of Burma, very flawed. Obviously very flawed. But this is a military coup to be sure.

REICHARD: President Biden has condemned the coup. What options does he have to persuade military leaders to reverse course?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, most of them are already pretty sanctioned by the United States and other allied countries. But there are still more sanctions that can be enacted against the military leadership. And, of course, going back to policy, there’s a diplomatic isolation that we had up until 2009, 2010. So, there are a number of policies that can be taken and of course there’s diplomatic pressure in conjunction with some of the southeast Asian states and some of our allies in Asia that can be brought to bear as well. But it certainly frees the improving of relations between our two countries.

REICHARD: Myanmar, especially its military, has close ties to China. Could U.S. action strengthen that bond, and if so, what are the potential consequences? 

BLUMENTHAL: Well, it will strengthen the bond in the short term, without question. Although the bond’s pretty strong as it is. So we have—this Burma policy has not succeeded in many of its fundamental objectives including weaning them off of a dependency on China. China’s corrupt, as we know, and spends a lot of money to corrupt the leaders of Burma and other countries along the periphery as well. 

REICHARD: Dan, what do you think the American public needs to know about this that perhaps they don’t?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, you know, these are extraordinarily complicated issues because we have security interests in having Burma and other southeast Asian nations with human rights abuses on our side in a geopolitical competition with China. But we also can’t just ignore these grave human rights abuses as well as military coups. So, a complicated issue.

REICHARD: Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks so much for joining us today.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you very much for having me.

(AP Photo) Armed riot police are seen near protesters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. 

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