Quick Take: Myanmar’s military coup is nothing like the US insurrection

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. I've got your Quick Take kicking off the week. Plenty of things we could talk about, but I thought we would actually discuss Myanmar, because it's not generally something in the news. And yet just this weekend, we had a successful military coup and immediately of course you see Americans say, "Hey, that's just like what happened in the United States, could have been us." And the answer is no, no. What happened in the US was an insurrection that failed, but it was not a coup and the reason it was not a coup is because the military played absolutely no role. In fact, all of the former secretaries of defense said that Democrat and Republican, that it was a free and fair election, and that Biden was going to be president. That needed to be respected. The joint chiefs wrote their letter together saying that it was critical to stand for the constitution.


No, not only did the military not play a role in undermining the transition, it actively stood up and the professionalization and the independence of the military, ultimately reporting to the American people, serving the American nation is a big piece of why the US political system retains its resilience, despite all of the erosion of institutions, all of the delegitimacy. That is not the case in Myanmar, where until 10 years ago it was a military dictatorship. There then was a transition that was imperfect. And now we are back to military dictatorship once again, as the military took over everything. Now it's worth going back to 10 years ago, when the transition of power that, that ended up with Aung San Suu Kyi being released, the incredibly well-known opposition figure who was under house arrest and ended up being allowed to functionally run the country. That agreement was with a new constitution.

That allowed the military ... it was a compromise. It allowed them to still have a fair amount of power. So for example, they still control the security ministries directly, unlike the civilian control in the United States. And they were guaranteed 25% of all seats in parliament, no matter what. And then you have elections on top of that to determine the rest and the military can stand their political figures in those elections as well. So, despite the fact that here's a woman that had been under house arrest and was allowed to come to power and you move towards civilian rule, it wasn't full civilian rule. The military still played a very significant role. You'd call it a hybrid system and look, the economy was in horrible shape. There was hope on the part of the military that by allowing a transition, that the country would do better economically, and they could also make more money themselves and there would be some liberalization.

So, all of that is what we saw over the last 10 years, generally welcomed by the United States and the Obama, Biden administration at that point. Now a new military leader right now, who really wants to hold onto power, but had no good way to do it. they tried to reform the constitution to provide additional safeguards and benefits for the military last year, that failed. They had elections recently. They really underperformed in those elections. They said it was a fraud. They had tried to delay the elections because of coronavirus, no dice, the Supreme Court threw out the claims of fraud there. That's obviously a equivalent to what we saw in the United States in terms of the judiciary and they were threatening, if you're not willing to compromise with us in particularly let the military leader who was about to retire, become the president, or otherwise have power, that they were going to change the constitution by force.

And they were engaging in some ... you saw tanks rolling around in major cities over the last few days, that kind of thing. Well, they didn't come to a deal. And as a consequence of no deal, the military swooped in. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is yet again being detained. She has told the people not to tolerate this, functionally to revolt. But the other leaders of her party also being detained. So too, many members of the local media has been taken over by the military. Means of communication, temporarily shut down. In other words, this was well-planned and the military is in charge of everything now. So, what are the implications of this? First point, Aung San Suu Kyi, she won the Nobel Prize. Everyone knows her. She's no hero. After being in office, you probably one of the things Myanmar also famous for aside from her is this incredible ethnic cleansing that occurred against local Rohingya.

As a consequence, you had villages that were burned to the ground. Thousands of people killed, massive numbers of refugees streaming into Bangladesh as a consequence, other places. And she supported that. She supported the ethnic cleansing. It's a nationalist position, having nothing to do with her interest in democracy away from the military. A little bit like Navalny and his Russian nationalist position against Central Asians or Ukrainians or Georgians for example. Even though he's pro democracy, not someone I think should get the Nobel Peace Prize. In the case of Myanmar, much bigger deal because she was so well-known internationally, so revered and then became such a disappointment in such a massive human rights disaster debacle. Having said that, she still is the strongest voice for democracy in the country. And so the fact that she's now being detained, absolutely falls against everything that democracies in the world should want for the future of Myanmar.

You want her released, you want the civilian government to be able to come back. There will be some demonstrations, I'm sure, but domestically nowhere near the kind of capacity to undo this military rule. Internationally, the influence is mostly China and the Chinese may not like military leadership, but they certainly aren't going to undermine it or oppose it. As long as the economic relations with China continue to be stable, as they will. Furthermore, other countries with significant economic relations with Myanmar in the region, Southeast Asian countries, Japan, they all have relations with Myanmar that are based on noninterference. So, they're not going to stand for significant US sanctions. So, if the United States is saying, "You got to let her go. They've got to do something or else." There ain't much, or else. The United States is a marginal player here. And here I think it's important for us to understand that the United States increasingly frequently in a GZero world American exceptionalism, doesn't get you very far.

So, in the United States, whether it's saying the North Koreans can't have nukes or else. Or else what? Well, they're a nuclear power and the administrations on both sides of the aisle have been unable to do anything about that. Assad must go. Or else what? The United States has marginal influence over Syria. They're engaging much more closely with the Russians, with Iran, with other countries. Obama's gone, Assad is still there. The Russians must release Navalny or else. Or else what? Navalny probably tomorrow is going to be sentenced to a long jail term. The United States will put more targeted sanctions on Russia. The Europeans will be more reluctant because they trade much more with the Russians and a lot of them are reliant on energy there. What is the United States it's going to do? Myanmar, same thing. So, the United States is on the right side of these issues, but increasingly in a more fragmented world where the Chinese, the Russians are willing to say, "Screw you, we're not paying any attention." Other countries are more aligned, particularly with China economically. It's getting harder for the Americans to do that. And it's also getting harder because the United States at home has just had this horribly contested election, that delegitimizes American efforts to tell other countries, "This is what you should be doing in terms of domestic governance." All of which is to say, it's going to be harder for Biden to pull off these sorts of statements and make them stick. It makes it more compelling for the Americans to engage multilaterally and not make these announcements themselves but have a large number of allies on board. Strength in numbers, but also coordination in terms of what values really will stick as opposed to those the Americans care about but nobody else really does. And finally, this is a problem it's likely to get worse over time.

So, that's a little bit of what I think about Myanmar. I hope everyone's well, stay safe. If you're in New York, avoid snow. Snow is kind of fun actually. But avoid people. Be good. Talk to you soon.

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