After the February coup that led to the massacre of 850 adults and children, mass arrests, starvation and torture, the U.S. was the first nation to impose sanctions and lodge protests in many venues. Biden was well aware that the Russian president—along with Xi Jinping—was one of the most powerful allies of the Burmese generals: the Pentagon certainly informed him about the enormous armory purchased for billions of rubles and yuan by the Naypyidaw military junta, which is using it against its own people. The most recent was the order from Moscow of sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems and next-generation Orlan-10 surveillance drones.
Biden understands that despite the embargo, there are many Western companies (including Italian ones) supplying technology, weapons or engaged in the construction of infrastructure for the exploitation of the territories of populations that are often evacuated by force.
A number of armed ethnic minorities are back on the warpath to support the anti-coup civil disobedience movement and its new, non-peaceful offshoots, the “Popular Defense Forces,” which seem to have already killed more than 100 soldiers and policemen in various cities where they have sprung up and are now growing with the support of young people who are going to train with the old guerrillas once considered “terrorists.”
Biden’s silence, after he had publicly called for an end to the abuses by the military, represents the embarrassment of a man who is much weaker than the interests in play. According to analyst Robert Kaplan, writing in Foreign Affairs, the collapse of the junta in Myanmar, where competition for energy and natural resources between China and India looms large, would threaten neighboring economies and require massive humanitarian intervention by sea. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but it serves to explain the caution of the international community and that of the neighboring countries of Southeast Asia who are members in the transnational pan-Asian body ASEAN, which has among its members key allies of Washington, Beijing or both. For now, all contradictions are resolved in the common interest of the great blocs engaged in a potential cold war, which forms the backdrop to the double games played by individual member countries, aiming to maintain cordial relations and mutual convenience.
But what to make of Myanmar’s humanitarian violations? Its presence in ASEAN is even more embarrassing than if Belarus was a member of the EU, but it was the first of the countries of the alliance to earn the title of China’s “global strategic” partner, a step just below its number one ally, Moscow. ASEAN does not yet have the ambition to become a Community like the European one, and many norms that should be ethically binding for each member state—such as those regarding the respect of human rights—are systematically ignored.
Despite the evidence of atrocities committed in these four and a half months, no ASEAN government has said a word in protest, beyond criticizing “the slow pace of the peace process.”
In this vast and disunited buffer region between the great political blocs of East and West, a NATO-like organization called Quad is trying to make inroads, formed by the four pillars of a pro-American alliance that includes India, Japan and Australia, which could soon be joined by Canada, France and perhaps the U.K.
Many big players of the traditional Atlanticist alliance have their allies in the “friendly” countries of the area, such as South Korea, which has invested heavily in Myanmar, Thailand, or even Vietnam, which is more accustomed than others to walking the fine line between China and the U.S., gaining significant economic benefits. Hanoi has not uttered a word against the coup, and little more has been said by the Thai Prime Minister, a former military man who led a coup himself.
During the years of the hybrid civilian-military government of Aung San Suu Kyi, some in Washington hoped to bring Myanmar firmly on America’s side of the NATO-Quad line-up and remove it from the Moscow-Peking axis, formalized 20 years ago with the birth of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes several Central Asian republics, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Islamic Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey. But the illusion harbored by young Burmese and ethnic activists has been shattered in the face of the evident impotence of the “democratic” world against a country with such powerful protectors.
The dystopian prison-world that is now Myanmar is located within the physical confines of the Asian union, but it’s also in the minds of those who, like the young people of Generation Z, grew up in relative freedom and unprecedented openness to national ethnicities and foreign cultures that they got to know online, and now feel they have fallen into an abyss even darker than during the past versions of the dictatorship.
By forgiving the generals for all their crimes and becoming their ally, Aung San Suu Kyi, as informal head of the government, consciously sided more with Beijing than with her old friends in the West, who were less inclined to sing praises to her than in the past. And she has fallen victim to her own personality cult that makes her into someone irreplaceable, and therefore an element of instability in the event of her illness or death, without a political heir who will one day guarantee that the agreements that have been made would be respected.
This is why Xi Jinping has preferred military leaders, bred from a solid institution like the army, which is not ephemeral, like a party under the aegis of a single individual.
The general commanders have often remained in office well beyond the age limits, also in order to prepare their successors, as did Than Shwe, who, at 78, appointed his faithful former attendant Min Aung Hlaing, now 66, as head of state, army commander and leader of the February coup. Ten years younger than Suu Kyi, the general will predictably ensure that his former ally will remain as unreachable as possible, which, barring any surprises, means she will spend her old age in isolation, as was the case on June 19, her 76th birthday.
A bit like the fairy tale princesses locked up in castles, Suu Kyi had waited a quarter of a century for Prince Charming—a role taken up by Obama—to come and free her from house arrest in her home on Lake Inya in Rangoon 11 years ago. But now, even with the best of intentions, no one would even know where to find her. And if Biden asked Putin about her fate, he was surely told the latter knew nothing about it.