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Myanmar’s coup has no heroes

This episode of Worldly discusses what happened in Myanmar and what potentially lies ahead.

Protesters use their phones to shine light during a demonstration.
Myanmar citizens living in Thailand protest against Myanmar’s military coup outside Myanmar’s Embassy on February 4, 2021.
Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Monday, Myanmar’s military launched a coup, detaining the country’s democratically elected civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with hundreds of members of her political party.

Their actions put an end to Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with quasi-democratic rule, calling the country’s future into question and posing some serious challenges to Biden’s pro-democracy agenda.

On this week’s episode of Worldly, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, Jenn Williams, and Alex Ward discuss why the coup happened, why both sides in this fight are morally compromised, and what the Biden administration and the international community can (and can’t) do in response.

As Ward has previously explained, Myanmar’s ruling military junta maintained solid control of the country for decades. Suu Kyi, a prominent advocate for democracy, was placed under house arrest for speaking out, gaining her international fame and support.

But during the Obama administration, after years of political and economic pressure from the United States and other nations — including strict economic sanctions — Myanmar’s military began to make some modest moves toward democracy.

In 2010, they released Suu Kyi from detention, and in 2015, her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 77 percent of the seats in parliament in the country’s first free and fair election in 25 years.

Since then, Suu Kyi has run the country in her role as “state counsellor” alongside the Myanmarese military, which still retained significant power.

Yet Suu Kyi began to push for constitutional reforms that would further restrict the military’s role in governing the country, thereby threatening the military’s grip on power. And in the country’s November 2020 elections, Suu Kyi’s party gained massive support, essentially giving her a mandate to pursue those reforms.

So hours before Myanmar’s parliament was set to seat its new members, the military seized control and again placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.

But while the military’s actions are reprehensible, Suu Kyi is no angel herself.

Once an international darling who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for democracy and emphasis on nonviolence, Suu Kyi fell from grace internationally when she supported the military’s 2017 campaign of genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group. She not only refused to condemn the military for its actions, but went as far as to defend them in an international court.

That poses a challenge for the Biden administration and the international community because while the US and its partners want to support the pro-democracy movement in the country against the military regime, it’s harder to do now that the leader of that movement is potentially complicit in genocide.

The Biden administration has officially labeled the takeover a coup and said it is considering placing economic sanctions on Myanmar’s military. But US allies in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea, are big trading partners with Myanmar and likely won’t support these sanctions, which means imposing them will have less bite.

A delicate path lies ahead for the Biden administration. There are things the US can do to help, but the core problems that have plagued Myanmar for decades, including the often-violent repression of its many ethnic and religious minorities, remain.

To hear more about what led to Myanmar’s coup and what it means for the country’s future, listen below.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Worldly wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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