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IDEAS

How to keep Myanmar from becoming another US failure

Obama-era veterans in the Biden administration should remember the errors they made as Syria descended into chaos.

Anti-coup demonstrators prepare to confront police on Thursday in Yangon, Myanmar.
Anti-coup demonstrators prepare to confront police on Thursday in Yangon, Myanmar.Mg Ny@n/Associated Press

The stories coming out of Myanmar are unbearable. An 11-year-old girl, Aye Myat Thu, was shot and killed by security forces, and then buried alongside her drawing of a Hello Kitty character and her favorite toys. A 13-year-old boy, Htoo Myat Win, was shot dead by security forces while playing at home; videos show his grieving father holding his son and weeping.

Aye Myat Thu and Htoo Myat Win are among a dozen or so children killed by security forces during the last weekend of March. These dead are only a fraction of the more than 500 people that the Myanmar military, which seized power in a February coup, has killed while suppressing anti-coup protests. Such horrors make clear the military’s illegitimacy and inability to govern.

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When this military, the Tatmadaw, last ran Myanmar, from 1962 to 2011, people were cut off from the world. There was almost no Internet in the country. Now Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is populated by a generation raised with technology and free from isolation. Yet Tatmadaw leaders, who live cloistered off from much of society, likely are only now realizing how the ground has shifted beneath their feet, that they cannot run Myanmar, and that their country is on the precipice of collapse.

Meanwhile, Myanmar remains awash in weapons and marred by ethnic and religious resentment. The country has experienced multiple civil wars between insurgent groups and the government for decades. The Tatmadaw has for years violently repressed minorities like the Rohingya Muslims; the military’s brutal 2017 crackdown on them killed thousands, and forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Myanmar’s crisis therefore calls to mind (and is arguably worse than) that of Syria at the outset of the Arab Spring — and Syria became the Obama administration’s greatest blunder.

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If President Biden and his foreign policy advisers — many of whom were also in the Obama administration — intend to play a constructive role in Myanmar today, they must think more boldly and creatively than they did in Syria and other crises. They must prioritize pragmatism and engagement, rather than idealism and isolation.

Of all the Syria veterans sitting in the White House and State Department, perhaps none is more consequential than Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who served as Obama’s deputy secretary of state. He said last year: “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life [in Syria].”

Obama failed there because he refused to recognize reality. He refused to include the odious Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in any potential solution and instead called for his ouster, all while refusing to back up his proclamations with substantial force. Obama then undermined himself by declaring a “red line” for intervention — the use of chemical weapons — and not intervening when al-Assad crossed it.

When the United States was ineffectual in Syria, it left the world to deal with the consequences. And while Blinken has said that he will remember these mistakes for the rest of his days, Obama, remarkably, in 2016 declared himself “proud” of the moment when, against the “overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom,” he decided not to honor his own “red line.”

One can only hope, then, that the people of Myanmar will be better served by Biden’s foreign policy than the Syrian people were by Obama’s. One indeed hopes that members of this administration will use Blinken’s regret as a prism through which to see Myanmar as it is, not how they wish it to be.

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Early signs are not assuring. On March 29, the United States said it had suspended all trade negotiations with Myanmar until the democratic government returns. That decision is well-intentioned and perhaps necessary, but it will not bring down the junta. International pressure may make us feel better, but it will do nothing for Myanmar’s people, because it will not oust a repugnant regime — as we should have learned from Syria. If the goal is to prevent further bloodshed, negotiation with the regime is the only option. Yet even the mere suggestion of dialogue remains controversial.

Engagement does not require that we pull back from imposing sanctions upon the junta. The United States and our partners can maintain economic pressure while persuading the Tatmadaw that sharing power with the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, is the only way to prevent massive loss of life, because the signs of state failure are already present in Myanmar.

Protests show no sign of stopping. Some insurgent groups have ramped up their attacks on military forces; others have promised to fight against the military if its killings do not stop. And the Tatmadaw, instead of bending to foreign pressure, is cracking down with brutal organized violence. The junta has also filed criminal charges against Suu Kyi and ordered a shutdown of wireless broadband service.

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Without negotiation, this situation will metastasize, perhaps even into a failed state that draws in foreign powers — the United States, China, India, Russia, and Japan, all of whom have interests there — and foments a true international crisis. This potential chain of events is why the United States and its partners must explore and capitalize on any opportunities for conversation as soon as possible.

Any solution that includes the junta will be far from democratic or ideal. Indeed, any solution will likely give the Tatmadaw even more institutionalized power than it had in the semi-democratic pre-coup system, which gave the military an unelected quota of 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But the United States cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good — or even of the suboptimal. Stable autocracy, loathsome at is, remains preferable to nationalized civil war or state failure.

Pulling Myanmar back from the brink will require bold and perhaps even controversial action. But if Biden and Blinken can prevent Myanmar from becoming Southeast Asia’s Syria — “a permanent state of terror” whose failure would reverberate across the world — then their efforts will have been worth it.

Charles Dunst is an associate with the Global Macro practice at Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. He previously reported from Southeast Asia for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.

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