It feels like déjà vu for Myanmar, where the military seized power in a coup on Monday. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government overwhelmingly won reelection in November, has been detained along with other senior party members, and the military leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has declared a one-year state of emergency.
Military rule has been more or less the norm in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, since a coup overthrew a short-lived democratic government in 1962. In 1988, Suu Kyi, daughter of the revered Burmese independence leader Aung San, emerged as the leader of a pro-democracy protest movement, and was arrested the following year. In 1990, to the surprise of many, the country held a relatively fair election, and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory. But the military junta simply ignored the result, held on to power, and cracked down on the NLD. Suu Kyi would spend 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest until her last release in 2010. After the NLD’s victory in the 2015 elections, she became the country’s de facto leader.
So, the military is once again ignoring the results of an election and detaining Suu Kyi. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken today called on the military to “reverse these actions immediately,” and the Biden administration is reportedly mulling new sanctions. But the global reaction is likely to be different than it was in 1990. During Myanmar’s last period of military rule, Western governments often portrayed the country’s politics as a fairy-tale battle between good and evil. The contrast between Suu Kyi and the odious military regime she opposed made that a very easy story to sell. While Suu Kyi remains overwhelmingly popular in Myanmar, global views of her are a lot more complicated now, which could make foreign governments—particularly the United States—wary about getting too enmeshed in the country’s politics again.
During her last period of confinement, Suu Kyi became a global icon. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and earned comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in the global media. Her story, particularly her refusal to leave Myanmar, even when her husband was dying of cancer in the U.K., certainly made her a compelling figure. “The Lady,” as she was often called, was the subject of a biopic, the inspiration for jazz tunes, and left Bono “star-struck when he met her.” Visiting dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, made a point of visiting her home to demonstrate their support for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. For much of the world, Suu Kyi was the personification of the fight for freedom and human dignity—until she wasn’t.
After taking power, Suu Kyi let down many of her international admirers by first remaining silent about, and then vocally defending, the military’s persecution of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority—an ethnic cleansing campaign which the U.N. has said meets the definition of genocide, and which has resulted in one of the world’s largest refugee crises. Suu Kyi even traveled to the Hague in 2019 to testify on her government’s behalf, brushing aside testimony about “mass rape, the stabbing of children, and families being burned alive” as an anti-terrorist “clearance operation.” Given that the military retained significant power even after her election, Suu Kyi was always in a tough political position. But if she was just condoning genocide to stay on the generals’ good side, it sure doesn’t appear to have worked.
The idolization of Suu Kyi is a textbook example of the dangers of reducing global political figures, who have their own interests and agendas, into one-dimensional heroes or villains.
Democratic hero worship isn’t only a problem only because it can become embarrassing. In 2016, when the anti-Rohingya campaign began, it appeared that the Obama administration’s backing for Suu Kyi’s government, after having played a key role in getting her released, made the U.S. reluctant to criticize it too strongly.*
In her 2019 memoir, Samantha Power, now Joe Biden’s nominee for administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recalls a meeting with Suu Kyi in 2012 while Power served on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. Power says she found Suu Kyi’s refusal to listen to advice or criticism and dismissal of the Rohingya issue “chilling” and that she believed at the time that “pinning our hopes on her leadership could be a mistake.” If this prescient attitude was widely held in the administration, it wasn’t much in evidence from Obama’s literal embrace of Suu Kyi later that year.
Myanmar was seen as one of the few unambiguous human rights wins for Obama, whose notable foreign policy wins, from the Iran nuclear deal to the normalization of relations with Cuba, generally involved finding areas of mutual interest with authoritarian regimes rather than transforming them. As Power recalls, Myanmar was viewed as a “rare bright spot” of democratic progress. The devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2018 forced a government that had rivaled North Korea in its isolation to open up a bit to outside aid, giving the international community some leverage. The U.S. then used sanctions relief, some well-timed high-profile visits, and took advantage of Myanmar’s fear of domination by China to induce it to take steps toward democratization, including Suu Kyi’s release and the holding of elections. Through these actions, the Obama administration sought to make the case that constructive engagement with autocratic regimes could foster democratic progress more effectively than the high-handed rhetoric and military aggression of the Bush years. “Thanks to the enormous courage of the people in that country, and because we took the diplomatic initiative, American leadership, we have seen political reforms opening a once-closed society,” Obama said in 2014, adding that if it worked, “we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.”
That looked awfully naïve once the killing of the Rohingya began, and looks even more so now that the military has again brutally shut down a brief experiment with democracy.
This time around, without an obvious hero to back, U.S. ambitions in the country are likely to be a lot more modest. It doesn’t really help U.S. credibility that the military’s justification for the coup, that it uncovered 10 million instances of voter fraud in the November election, closely resembles current U.S. political rhetoric.
From the American perspective, the coup feels like the end of whatever lofty hopes American policymakers had left about their ability to cajole or induce autocratic countries to become full-fledged democracies. To the extent democracy promotion is still a U.S. foreign policy priority, it’s likely to focus more on blunting authoritarians’ abilities to project power beyond their borders.
For Myanmar, the coup marks the closing of a rare window of political opportunity, and many of those who backed the country’s fight for democracy last time will be reluctant to do so again. It’ll probably be a long time before that window opens again.