Joe Biden's flawed policy on Myanmar
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Joe Biden's flawed policy on Myanmar

As the Israel-Hamas war rages, the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza is grabbing headlines -- as well it should. But another armed conflict, in Myanmar, is also causing mass suffering, with more than 2 million people internally displaced and over a million more streaming into neighbouring Bangladesh, India and Thailand. And it is attracting far less international attention.

This is not to say that outside forces are not engaged in the conflict in Myanmar. On the contrary, the US seems to view supporting the rebel and pro-democracy groups attempting to overthrow the military junta -- which returned to power in a February 2021 coup -- as a kind of moral test. But its approach is doing Myanmar little good.

After the military overthrew Myanmar's nascent civilian government, US President Joe Biden's administration re-imposed wide-ranging sanctions, which it has since ratcheted up. But, so far, the sanctions have left Myanmar's military elites relatively unscathed, even as they have unravelled the economic progress made over the last decade and inflicted misery on ordinary citizens.

The Biden administration has also deepened engagement with the so-called National Unity Government that was formed as an alternative to the junta. Though the US, like the rest of the world, has refrained from formally recognising the shadow government, this has not stopped the Biden administration from providing "non-lethal aid" to its notional army, the People's Defense Force, as well as to ethnic insurgent organisations and pro-democracy groups. And the US has a history of interpreting "non-lethal" rather loosely.

The groups the Biden administration supports in Myanmar do not share a common cause, let alone a single political strategy. The shadow government has failed to win the support of all major ethnic groups, and its armed wing lacks a unified military command. The ethnic insurgent groups -- some of which have records of brutality -- are often more interested in securing autonomy for their communities than in building an inclusive federal democratic system, and some are willing to collaborate with the junta to get it. Complicating matters further, these groups' territorial claims sometimes overlap.

It is impossible to say for certain whether growing US aid flows have fuelled more violence in Myanmar. But there is no doubt that rebel attacks have lately intensified, with serious consequences not only for civilians, who often are caught in the crossfire, but also for neighbouring states.

Meanwhile, more than 32,000 ethnic Chin from Myanmar have taken refuge in India's Chin-majority Mizoram state, where they live mostly in refugee camps. Thousands more have fled to another Indian border state, Manipur, fuelling an increasingly violent conflict between the local population's two main ethnic groups.

US aid to armed groups around the world has often fuelled disorder and suffering, undercutting the quest for democracy. Judging by Myanmar's deteriorating humanitarian situation, it seems that this may well be happening again. And Myanmar's neighbours are being affected in much the same way the US would be affected if faraway powers sought to punish Mexico and aid rebel groups there. Yet, far from letting the neighbouring countries take the lead in setting policy towards Myanmar, the Biden administration has insisted they toe the US line.

America's uncompromisingly punitive approach to Myanmar's military junta has hopelessly divided the 10-country Asean, preventing it from playing a constructive role.

India is concerned the US approach is pushing resource-rich Myanmar into China's arms. India views the country as a strategic corridor to Southeast Asia.

Mr Biden's misguided Myanmar policy seems to align with his public rhetoric about a "global battle between democracy and autocracy". But elsewhere, his administration has adopted a more pragmatic foreign-policy approach, deepening strategic relations with non-democracies in order to counter China's growing influence. For example, during the G20 summit in New Delhi this past September, Mr Biden sought to mend ties with Saudi Arabia. He then visited Vietnam, calling it a "critical Indo-Pacific partner".

Such realism should be welcomed: if the promotion of democracy and human rights overrode all other considerations, US diplomacy would have very few partners outside the West. But this approach needs to be extended to Myanmar. The US would stand a better chance of helping to end direct military rule there by opening up lines of communication with the junta and offering it incentives to reverse course. ©2023 Project Syndicate

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of 'Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Brahma Chellaney


Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including ‘Asian Juggernaut’, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’ and ‘Water, Peace and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis’.

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