Opinion | The Myanmar Cauldron

Opinion | The Myanmar Cauldron
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The situation in Myanmar (aka Burma) is unraveling fast. Two months ago, after losing badly in national elections, the military suspended the country’s quasi-democratic government and detained its elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Hopes that the coup might be peacefully reversed have been dashed, and the junta is now using violence to suppress opposition. More Western sanctions might not change the mind of the generals—especially if Russia and China arm and supply them—but solidarity with the protesters is a statement about American values.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced Monday that the Administration “will suspend all U.S. trade engagement with Burma,” strongly condemning “the Burmese security forces’ brutal violence against civilians.” The violence reportedly includes a Sunday assault at the funeral for a protester killed Saturday. More than 100 people were reportedly killed Saturday in protests across the country as the military deployed live ammunition. That added to the 300 who had already been killed in the weeks since the generals seized power.

The unpredictable situation could roil geopolitics in Asia. China, Myanmar’s most powerful neighbor, has been reluctant to condemn the repression, and Chinese factories in Myanmar were attacked earlier this month.

Other powers are also jockeying for advantage. A senior Russian defense official recently met with Myanmar’s top general. India, which wants to balance Chinese influence, is also shying away from full-throated condemnation of the junta. A diverse Buddhist-majority country, Myanmar’s instability could also lead to more ethnic fighting, and Reuters reported Monday that Thailand “is preparing for a potential flood of refugees” along the border.

Western economic influence in Myanmar is limited, with 84% of the country’s imports coming from the East Asia and Pacific regions. China wants above all to retain its access through the country to the Indian Ocean. It will take deft diplomacy by the Biden Administration to safeguard U.S. and allied interests as the Myanmar cauldron burns hotter. In the meantime, the U.S. is right to stand with the democracy protesters risking their lives.

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Appeared in the March 30, 2021, print edition.