Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. On Monday, the military in Myanmar staged a coup detaining officials from the governing civilian party, the National League for Democracy or NLD. Among those detained was leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was previously held under house arrest by military leaders for 15 years. But for the Biden administration, the situation in Myanmar has quickly turned into one of its most pressing international challenges.
Yesterday, President Biden released a statement in response to the coup, calling for the release of the detained officials and threatening the military leaders with possible sanctions. Joining me now to discuss is Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent at POLITICO. Nahal, thanks for joining us.
Nahal Toosi: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: What led to the coup?
Nahal: There was an election in November in Myanmar, and the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, her party did very, very well, and the military-backed party did not do as well. Apparently the military leadership was unhappy with this. They made some allegations of election fraud and they decided to stage this coup before the newly elected parliament was set to convene on Monday.
Tanzina: You're talking about a military that's suggesting that there was election fraud. Election fraud is something we've heard about often in this country. Are those two things connected? Were they inspired by the narrative of election fraud? Do we know?
Nahal: It's very difficult to know exactly what was going into their thinking. I would be hesitant though to say that Myanmar necessarily takes moves based on what the US president or what the United States does or events here. It's not a connection that I'm willing to make without some better proof.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about Aung San Suu Kyi because she is also a controversial figure because of her failure to condemn violence against Rohingya Muslims. Tell us a little bit more about her situation.
Nahal: She's the civilian leader, the de facto leader of the country. She spent 15 of 21 years under house arrest because she was advocating for democracy in Myanmar, which was long ruled by a military junta. Since her party won elections in 2015, she's done what she can to run the country, despite the military controlling significant levers of power. Right now, what we're hearing, we know she's detained.
It's a little unclear exactly where she is. There are some reports to say that she is under house arrest again, but it's not entirely certain. One question that I've been trying to get answers, is whether the Biden administration has been trying to reach her. I do know that US military officials have been trying to contact their Burmese counterparts, but I don't know what's come of that.
Tanzina: President Biden has called the coup "a direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law". Are sanctions the most likely action we can see from the Biden administration right now?
Nahal: I think you can see some rhetoric, additional rhetoric, some diplomatic moves possibly trying to get special envoys or envoys from other countries to go and see what they can do on the diplomatic front. But yes, at the end of the day, that the tool that's most likely to be used is economic sanctions on the military leadership, perhaps some industrial sectors where the military has a lot of control.
The Biden administration in terms of the president has a lot of authority to impose sanctions and he can go ahead and do that, but also in Congress, Republicans and Democrats are very united on this issue of promoting democracy in Myanmar and they're already trying to put together a sanctions package. So even if Biden for whatever reason might be reluctant to impose sanctions, Congress may force him to do it, but I don't think there's going to be that much daylight between them at the end of the day.
Tanzina: Nahal, what was the Trump administration's approach to Myanmar, particularly the violence against Rohingya Muslims?
Nahal: Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, declared what was happening an ethnic cleansing. He also visited Myanmar to make the point that they needed to stop mistreating the Rohingya this way. Secretary of State Pompeo oversaw basically a review of exactly what had happened to the Rohingya, but he never actually made any formal declaration that a genocide had occurred. He held off on that.
My understanding is partly, it was because there was a concern that if you called it a genocide, the military in Myanmar would be more angry with the US and further turn toward China and the US would lose influence. The other thing that the Trump administration did was they did impose a lot of sanctions on individual military leaders who they held responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya. President Trump himself though, he didn't very much pay attention to what was happening in Myanmar.
I know that he spoke of it only twice. One was behind closed doors as part of a speech and it was only a brief reference, and another time it was when he was introduced to a Rohingya man in the Oval Office and the guy said, "I'm Rohingya." The president's reaction was, "Where is that?" It was clear that he wasn't particularly paying attention, but there were a lot of people in the Trump administration who did care and who did try to do what they can to impose some costs on the issue.
Tanzina: We know that President Trump right now, an impeachment trial is about to begin in the upcoming days about whether or not the president himself incited part of the insurrection that we witnessed on the Capitol. We now see members of the GOP, Nahal, who initially spoke out against what the president may have done to incite this insurrection, are now sort of walking that back. At the same time, they're critiquing what they see happening in Myanmar. Does the United States have a leg to stand on? After four years of Donald Trump, how much could that have affected our standing internationally to call out these atrocities?
Nahal: It's not great right now, US credibility on democracy, but it's also an opportunity for the Biden administration and it's going to be interesting to see if they try to seize it. They already are in touch with international allies, they're issuing strong statements. To them, it's a way to say, look, America is back. Trump was an aberration. The US of course stands for democracy and human rights and we want you to work with us. What I think is going to be interesting is whether our allies come in a unified way and actually stand with us to the degree that they could. Then when that comes, you have to think about their interests and their relations with places like China and Myanmar itself, so it's not going to be simple.
Tanzina: Let's talk about that relationship between China and Myanmar and how that could affect the US response.
Nahal: China has long been Myanmar's biggest trading partner. US trade with Myanmar is not very much. China has had a relationship with the military and to some degree with the civilian leadership. It's their neighbor. It also is affected by the unrest in Myanmar, so it wants stability, because there's all sorts of fighting along its border with ethnic minorities and the Myanmar military. It really is a very complicated relationship. On the one hand, so far they've called the coup- the Chinese, they've called the coup a major cabinet reshuffle and they're very much trying to downplay it.
At the same time, the Myanmar military, they're not necessarily eager to be vassals of the Chinese. One of the reasons that they decided to allow for democratization was because they wanted to get out of the grip of the Chinese a bit and to have more Western connections. It's a little too simplistic to say this is definitely China's territory now. But it is, definitely in terms of authoritarianism, promoting dictatorship and stuff, it's a point in China's corner.
Tanzina: Finally, Nahal, what are you watching for next for the Biden administration and this situation in Myanmar?
Nahal: I think I'm going to want to know exactly what they're going to do to impose costs. Are they going to use sanctions? What types of sanctions? Is it going to be just a bunch of talk? Are they going to be able to use their allies and general goodwill on the international stage to make a difference there, or is this just going to continue to be the hard case that it always has been?
Tanzina: Nahal Toosi is a foreign affairs correspondent at POLITICO. Nahal, thanks so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.