U.S. calls Myanmar takeover a coup, China calls it a “reshuffle”
Beijing — The military takeover in Myanmar and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi has been labelled a coup by the Biden administration. The characterization made by State Department officials in a call with reporters on Tuesday triggered a freeze in certain U.S. assistance to the country and a review of other aid programs, but CBS News correspondent Christina Ruffini said the officials made it clear the administration would continue to help to the people of Myanmar and bolster efforts to foster democracy in the country.
“We have expressed grave concern regarding the Burmese military’s detention of civilian government leaders,” a State Department official said on the call. “After a careful review of the facts and circumstances, we have assessed that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s ruling party, and Win Mynt, the duly elected head of government, were deposed in a military coup on February 1st.”
The Biden administration honed its stance on Tuesday hours after Chinese state media dismissed the takeover as “a major cabinet reshuffle,” rolling out euphemisms to avoid calling it a coup. Democratic leaders around the world have slammed the Burmese military, and Mr. Biden had already made it clear the U.S. was “taking note” of who was standing up for Myanmar’s people.
In its softly-softly approach, Beijing called for all parties in Myanmar to “resolve their differences,” and the official Xinhua news agency on Monday described the military replacing elected ministers after the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” The nationalist Global Times meanwhile quoted unnamed experts as saying the generals’ power-grab could be seen as “an adjustment to the country’s dysfunctional power structure.” The statement almost echoed remarks posted online later by Myanmar’s military rulers, who described their takeover as “inevitable.”
The paper — known for its fiery commentaries against China’s critics — also used the occasion to take a pop at former U.S. president Donald Trump, whose combative approach to Beijing had plunged U.S.-China ties to their lowest in decades. “Some experts mentioned that… Trump, who refused to admit his election defeat and reportedly incited the Capitol riots, might be the Myanmar military’s inspiration,” it wrote.
CBS News asked on the Tuesday call if, given the Myanmar military’s claims to have acted in response to election fraud, the U.S. officials believed the Burmese commanders might have been emboldened by the false claims of fraud in the U.S. election. The officials did not comment. Beijing has long rebuffed what it sees as interference in its “internal affairs” — such as criticism over its human rights record — and has taken a similarly neutral stance on most foreign affairs. Myanmar is also a vital piece of Beijing’s huge Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. President Xi Jinping visited the country last January, and promised to support the Myanmar government on a development path “suited to its own national conditions.”
China, the U.N., and leverage
European officials, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the takeover, labelling it unequivocally a coup on Monday. Many others, including President Biden in the U.S. and the head of the United Nations, slammed the military’s actions and called for an immediate restoration of democracy in Myanmar, but did not immediately use the word coup on Monday.
The EU condemns in the strongest terms the military coup carried out in #Myanmar. It is an unacceptable attempt to forcibly overturn the will of the people of Myanmar. The EU will consider all options at its disposal to ensure that democracy prevails. https://t.co/QJyMkfB871
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) February 2, 2021
The United Nations Security Council was set to take up the issue later on Tuesday, but the Biden administration didn’t wait for that meeting to make it’s stance on the military’s actions clear. It will still be hoping to muster support for a coordinated international response, however.
Myanmar’s military justified its power grab by alleging widespread fraud in elections held three months ago that the NLD won in a landslide. It has imposed a state of emergency for one year, after which it says it will hold fresh elections.
So far China, and to a slightly lesser extent Russia, have been the only nations willing to defend the military’s actions in Myanmar, which was previously known as Burma and is still called that by the U.S. government.
Russia used extremely gentle rhetoric in describing the military’s takeover, suggesting it was merely an internal disagreement over “differences that arose following the results of the parliamentary elections.”
“We hope for a peaceful settlement of the situation in accordance with the current legislation through the resumption of political dialogue,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday, adding, pointedly, that it had “paid attention to the statement of the military authorities about their intention to hold new parliamentary elections in a year.”
Crucially, as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council both China and Russia wield veto power over any resolutions proposed within that body, so they could thwart efforts led by other countries to impose multilateral sanctions on the military-run regime in Myanmar — or even to formally label it’s actions a coup.
The U.K. holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of February and therefore steers the agenda, and it chose to keep the Tuesday meeting closed in what is known as “consultations,” reports CBS News’ Pamela Falk, with a briefing by Christine Schraner Burgener, Special Envoy on Myanmar, who has already been “actively engaged” on the ground, the U.K. said.
Keeping the meeting closed could soften any tense exchange and lead to a statement by the 15-nation Council, which, even if unenforceable, would send a message to Myanmar’s military rulers.
“We will look at any range of measures,” U.K. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told Falk during a press exchange on Monday. The British envoy, who will run Tuesday’s meeting, served as the U.K. Ambassador to China from 2015 – 2020 and has significant expertise dealing with the country as world leaders try to shape the next steps in their response, and possibly call for the release of Suu Kyi and other political leaders.
The U.S. can also act unilaterally, and the Biden administration has vowed to “take action against those responsible” if the Burmese military fails to “reverse these actions immediately.”
But as Asia analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a Monday note on Myanmar, the U.S. government’s leverage over the new military leadership is limited by Washington’s relatively small investment footprint in the country.
“Despite a decade of opening, U.S. businesses remain relatively modest players in the Myanmar economy,” the CSIS analysts said. “Those that have invested are mainly geared at providing goods and services to the domestic market in Myanmar, which means their departure will mostly harm private citizens. U.S. businesses have stayed away from the natural resource extraction and commodities export sectors in which the military is heavily invested.”
The analysts said the effectiveness of any punitive measures imposed by Washington will hinge on support from other Asian nations, which have closer business ties with Myanmar. That support, however — even from close allies — may be difficult to solidify.
“It will be more difficult for the United States to get major investors in Myanmar, like Japan and Singapore, to follow suit. And the largest foreign player in Myanmar’s economy, China, will be all too happy to recalibrate its engagement to recognize the new facts on the ground,” said the CSIS. “That will likely soften the blow of any U.S. sanctions.”