President Joe Biden entered office less than two weeks ago on a pledge to restore the U.S. as a defender or democracy at home and abroad. His administration is already facing a foreign-policy crisis that, in light of our own recent political unrest, presents a unique test of that commitment.
Myanmar’s military carried out a coup on Monday, disbanding the country’s elected government and arresting senior political figures including President Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi, the chief of the ruling party and the country’s de facto leader.
The coup was predicated on allegations of fraud in the November 2020 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 396 out of 476 available seats in Parliament. The military has claimed, without convincing evidence, that there was massive fraud involving voter lists in the election, and said that Monday’s takeover was a response to the government’s failure to act on these claims. The generals claim to be acting within their legal authority, as a section of the constitution drafted by the military allows it to take control in national emergencies.
In an announcement read on a military-owned TV channel, the junta stated that Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would run the country for one year, while Vice President Myint Swe, a former general with close ties to the former dictator Than Shwe, would be elevated to acting president. A later announcement added that another election would be held in one year, after which the military would hand over power to the winner.
Some experts are interpreting the move as an attempt by the military to reassert control over Myanmar’s politics, after having made an uneasy transition toward democracy over the past decade, and to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi specifically from political leadership (she is already constitutionally barred from serving as president). The Nobel Peace Prize laureate spent 15 years under house arrest during Than Shwe’s dictatorship and became internationally renowned as a champion of democracy in Myanmar, which was under military rule from 1962 until 2011. The military retained a significant role in government during the country’s semi-democratic decade, and became infamous for its genocidal persecution of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. Aung San Suu Kyi trashed her global reputation by defending these atrocities, but remains extremely popular in Myanmar.
International condemnation of Monday’s coup came quickly and fiercely. President Biden called it “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” and said his administration would review and potentially reimpose some of the sanctions the U.S. had lifted on Myanmar over the past decade as a reward for its steps toward democratization. “The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” he said. The United Nations, European Union, U.K., and Japan also issued statements denouncing the coup, while China’s response was more equivocal.
Biden has a strong interest in handling this crisis successfully, but unfortunately, his ability to respond may be limited. If restoring U.S. sanctions doesn’t force the Myanmar junta to stand down, Biden will need to rally a coordinated international pressure campaign that would include Myanmar’s top trading partners (India, China, and Japan), which may not be willing. And between coordinating the COVID-19 vaccine strategy, attempting to pass another economic rescue bill, and so many other domestic-policy fires to put out, he won’t have a lot of free time to devote to this.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. is in the midst of its own destabilizing political conflict after former president Donald Trump tried to cast doubt on the legitimacy of our own elections and overturn
the results, first through the courts, then through Congress, and ultimately through violence. It is hard to see how U.S. diplomats can make a forceful case against trying to overturn elections through baseless allegations of fraud when our former president, most of his political party, and a sizable segment of our population advocate that course.
This is not to say, by any means, that this coup was a consequence of Trump’s presidency or his post-presidency. Myanmar’s democracy was extremely fragile, and this step backward may have been inevitable. The junta in Naypyidaw does not need lessons in overthrowing elected governments from Donald Trump — on the contrary, he could have learned a thing or two from them before trying to overturn an election himself.
Yet the parallels are striking: The Burmese military had wanted to delay the election on the pretext of the pandemic (a threat Trump and his allies speculated about carrying out last year), then claimed without evidence that the polls were tainted by massive fraud. It brought those claims to election authorities and the Supreme Court and, after failing to get its way by constitutional means, took matters into its own hands.
After Trump’s attempts at a constitutional coup failed, some of his craziest supporters urged him to do the same thing: declare a national emergency, impose martial law, arrest the leaders of the legitimately elected government, and rerun the election he lost under military management (presumably with as much intimidation and manipulation as needed to produce the “correct” tally). The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 sought to bring about that same outcome. Trump’s attempted coup enjoyed more popular support here than the generals’ coup appears to have in Myanmar, but failed because core state institutions, particularly the armed forces, were unwilling to upend two centuries of democratic tradition.
The fact that half of this scheme was attempted — and the rest of it even considered — in Washington has wiped away much of the U.S.’s moral authority to stand up to democratic backsliding and authoritarian coups around the world. If we can no longer manage to carry out an election that voters and public officials agree is secure and trustworthy, and if our leaders attempt to overturn election results they don’t like, what business do we have lecturing other countries about their own democratic processes?
During the past five years, Trump’s “fake news” refrain was a master class in how to taunt, manipulate, and undermine public trust in a free press, and we have seen authoritarians around the world adopt his language. We can expect to see the same with the parlance of the election conspiracy theory: fake ballots, dead voters, signature mismatches, preprogrammed Venezuelan voting machines, and so on. Crying fraud to justify rejecting a democratic election is hardly a new tactic, but Trump has given it a new level of legitimacy and provided a template for deploying it more effectively than he ever could.
Trump showed the world that you don’t need to prove widespread fraud to challenge an election and destabilize a democracy; you just need to get a loud, angry minority of the population onboard with the lie. In the U.S., with its robust democratic institutions, apolitical military establishment, and independent judiciary, this was not quite enough to overturn the will of the electorate. In a country like Myanmar, it is more than enough. It will not be the last place where this strategy is tried.
For the Biden administration, this means that on top of having limited capacity for handling an external crisis and limited means to influence Myanmar’s behavior, they must also face this challenge with a deficit in our country’s credibility and legitimacy as a defender of liberal democracy. It also means that the U.S. should expect to see other fragile democracies suffer postelection crises based on claims of fraud in the coming years. If the administration is ultimately unable to resolve such crises, perhaps American democracy needs to don its own oxygen mask first.