West has hard questions to answer about Myanmar coup

Western countries may have reacted in condemnation of the Myanmar military’s coup on Monday but they should have known this day might be coming.

Days after Donald Trump started making unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in early November, Myanmar’s military began doing the same.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne meets with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw in 2018.Credit:AP

The nation’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi soared to a thumping re-election, with her party the National League for Democracy winning 83 per cent of available seats in the November 8 election. Shortly afterwards, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) began making its fraud claims, despite election observers saying the voting was without major irregularities.

By the time alarmed diplomatic missions, including the Australian embassy, reacted on Friday to the military’s threats of a coup by issuing a joint statement urging calm, it was too late.

Once upon a time, the election of a new American president who had pledged to be more engaged in Asia and uphold democratic principles throughout the world would have made the generals think twice about staging a coup. It didn’t seem to make a difference in a world preoccupied with a global pandemic and dealing with a rising power in China that is indifferent to democratic ideals.

President Joe Biden has his plate full in trying to repair a nation ravaged by COVID-19. Myanmar, sadly, will not be on the top of his priorities.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January last year was the first by a Chinese leader in 19 years.Credit:AP

While the end of the Cold War discredited authoritarianism and ushered in an unprecedented period of democratisation, the world has been heading in the other direction for some time.

The global share of democracies declined from 54 per cent in 2009 to 49 per cent in 2019, according to the latest report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute.

In this era when authoritarianism is on the march, Myanmar’s democratisation and the election of Suu Kyi was hailed and encouraged by the Obama administration, of which Biden served as vice-president.

But soon after her election in 2015, Suu Kyi turned from angel to pariah over accusations the military was waging a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya minority. At times, it appeared the West had assumed the Nobel Peace Prize winner would live up to the version of her we had created in our heads: liberal democratic, progressive and multicultural – rather than a nationalist with authoritarian tendencies.

As global condemnation rightly grew over the Rohingya issue, sanctions were imposed on senior commanders in the Myanmar military and Suu Kyi was shunned on the international stage.

Considering the army was responsible for the apparent genocide, the takeover by the military for at least a year won’t do anything to solve the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The development is a sad indictment of the world’s decline into authoritarianism and the West’s ineffectual policies to stop it.

The West now needs to answer this difficult and uncomfortable question: were its actions in isolating Myanmar in recent years productive, or did it further embolden the generals to retake power once they realised they couldn’t win at the ballot box?

And it also needs to consider whether it has been hypocritical in its approach to the region. After all, we now welcome with open arms Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama, despite both leaders prevailing in coups.

As for China, it wouldn’t be loving this.

It had done a lot since 2015 to ingratiate itself with the civilian administration, and was rewarded with the country rapidly opening itself up to Chinese investment, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

But unlike many in the West, Beijing has also maintained deep relations with Myanmar’s generals.

China was never as naive.

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