Tomorrow, President Joe Biden will address the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in one of the most visible foreign policy speeches since he took office. At stake is his stated priority of reclaiming America’s global standing, which was so badly diminished by the Trump Administration. Biden has promised to defend democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism around the globe. One place has where this struggle is playing out dramatically is Myanmar (formerly Burma), a country that has suffered decades of brutal military rule and systematic violations of human rights.
A decade ago, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took an active interest in promoting change in Myanmar, pushing successfully for the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners, limited constitutional reforms and new elections in which the opposition National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority in the parliament. While these reforms engendered cautious optimism that Myanmar might finally be on a path to democracy, that hope was tempered by the refusal of Myanmar’s military to surrender much of its long-standing authority. The generals retained control of key ministries and were guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the parliament. This precluded the most-needed constitutional reforms.
Beginning in 2014, the military and allied ultranationalist militias weaponized social media — Facebook, in particular — as part of a brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state which led to the burning of homes, and raping of women. Ultimately, more than 800,000 Rohingyas fled the country. In 2018, a UN report categorized these mass crimes as a genocide, identifying sexual violence as a deliberate strategy to terrorize civilian populations, with a degree of planning that implicated the highest level of the military.
Adding to Myanmar’s misery, in February of this year, the military launched a coup d’etat, disbanding the democratically elected government and imprisoning the nation’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. When tens of thousands of people took to the streets in response, their peaceful protests were brutally suppressed. In the last seven months, more than one thousand people have been killed, more than 6,000 arbitrarily detained, and a quarter of a million Burmese driven from their homes. The junta has even sought to make COVID-19 a tool of their oppression, hoarding oxygen, arresting and persecuting doctors, opening fire on crowds seeking medical care, and collectively denying Myanmar’s citizens their right to basic health services.
As President Biden takes the podium to address world leaders at the UN, the military leaders of Myanmar represent everything that he has pledged to confront. In addition to condemning the ongoing human rights crisis in Myanmar, which he clearly needs to do, Biden and his administration also need to ensure that the country’s illegitimate military leaders are denied diplomatic recognition at the UN itself. There are two competing submissions for Myanmar’s ambassadorship to the UN — one from the democratically elected National Unity Government (NUG), the other from the military. Because of China’s longstanding support for Myanmar’s military, Beijing is blocking the NUG representative. As the credential fight plays out, the U.S. needs to continue supporting the NUG representative, Kyaw Moe Tum, who now holds the seat, and ensure that he can participate freely in the General Assembly’s debates. The U.S. also should support the UN expert’s conclusion that the violence against the Rohingya was a genocide. In the Security Council, the Biden Administration should also assert its leadership by pushing for global restrictions on arms sales to Myanmar, and sanctions directed against the country’s lucrative oil-and-gas sector, which serves as a key source of funding for the military.
If the U.S. takes a strong stand against authoritarianism in Myanmar, starting with the President’s words tomorrow, it would send a clear message to the Burmese military that it is more isolated than ever and can no longer violate human rights with impunity. Biden should call for an end to all attacks against peaceful demonstrators, release of all political detainees, and restoration of the duly elected government. Myanmar is a crucial test for the Biden democracy agenda and the principles he has espoused for the broader international community.
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