Was Beijing’s hand behind Burma’s military coup?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

Burma’s military coup d’etat overthrowing the democratically elected government has provided the stage for a new morality play in Southeast Asia.

We already know the players.

On the one side we see the seemingly virtuous young democracy led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate being pushed aside by the powerful and corrupt Burmese military.  Then there’s the international community, Britain, the United States and the European Union who quickly condemn the coup makers and demand a return to democracy.  Finally, consider the neighboring Southeast Asian nations, notably Thailand (with its own military junta), who basically shrug.

But the crescendo quickly builds when the UN Security Council with the United Kingdom at the helm, tries to mobilize a powerful condemnation of the military power grab, only to find that key veto holding members, especially China and Russia, provide diplomatic cover for Burma’s aka Myanmar’s military.

Military checkpoint near the congressional compound in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Feb. 1. / Stringer / Reuters


UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemns the military coup calling it “totally unacceptable.”

Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar,  addresses ambassadors, “I strongly condemn the recent steps taken by the military and urge all of you to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.”

So all the players have assumed their traditional places; the West most especially Britain, the former colonial power, and the U.S. in defending democracy and threatening sanctions. The People’s Republic of China, the regime’s longtime patron, protecting its client state. And the long suffering Burmese people find themselves on the losing end once again.

Sadly, military rule, direct or indirect, has been part of the Burmese political fabric since 1962.

The current  coup only reinforces the obvious; that democratic institutions have failed to take root deep enough in Burma’s rich soil, while the military, through the cohesiveness of power and corruption, has proven a powerful political counterweight.

Since 2015 when fair elections saw the victory of the National League for Democracy, Burma aka Myanmar has experienced an uneasy coexistence between Aung San Suu Kyi’s  democratically-elected government and the powerful Burmese military, the Tatmandaw, always lurking in the shadows.

The power sharing marriage of convenience underscored the Junta’s mantra of promoting a “Discipline-flourishing democracy.”

But Burma’s road to a quasi successful democracy faced the hurdles of the 1988 freedom movement when mass pro-democracy demonstrations were bloodily suppressed by the military, the hopeful 2007 Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks, and finally the political power sharing agreements between the Generals and Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government in 2015.

Elections in November 2020, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide, jolted the generals. On the day the new parliament was set to meet in the Disney-like faux capital Naypyidaw, the tanks rolled in.

Aung San Suu Kyi, has been smooth as silk with the foreign press; I recall her UN visit a few years back when she evoked the Angel of Democracy.

Back home she’s known as “Mother Suu” to the Burmese ethnic majority.  But millions of Burmese have become disenchanted by her NLD’s political incompetence and vindictiveness as well as her government’s politely looking the other way to ethnic persecution.

Burma, a resource rich Southeast Asian state of 54 million people borders China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh.  It’s strategically located on the Bay of Bengal.

Yet part of Burma’s original sin, and this includes the once sainted Aung San Suu Kyi, has been to run a hyper-nationalist Buddhist state at the expense of the country’s other ethnic and religious groups; Christians and Muslims.

Though Burma’s democratization has been rightly lauded for a decade, the ongoing tragedy of nearly one million Rohingya Muslims forced from the country into neighboring Bangladesh remains cynically overlooked.  So too has been the tragedy of Christian persecution of the Shan and Karen peoples in the north.

While Beijing has historically overplayed its hand in neighboring Burma, causing backlash even from an often collaborationist socialist regime, the fact stands that China’s political and economic power remains the central force to be reckoned with. It’s all about Belt and Road, expanding the deep water port of Kyaukphyu, being the primary arms merchant for the military, and holding the majority of foreign investments.

Add rackets, gambling, and human trafficking in this pivotal country, and China’s calculation becomes clear.

Just weeks before the recent coup, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with key Myanmar officials, offering support for the military’s “deserved role in the course of national transformation and development.”

Will any sanctions by the Biden Administration now push Burma’s generals totally back into Beijing’s arms?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]