Myanmar's coup brings new scrutiny to development engagement

A man reads a newspaper a day after Myanmar's military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup. Photo by: Aung Kyaw Htet / SOPA Images / Sipa USA

On Monday, military leaders seized control of Myanmar’s government and detained civilian political leaders in a coup that humanitarian experts warn could lead to further violence and displacement.

The military’s actions drew broad condemnation from world leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. President Joe Biden, who called it “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.”

Humanitarian groups warned Devex that the military’s takeover raises the risk of further persecution of the country’s ethnic minorities, threatens to make humanitarian access more difficult, and makes clear that the planned return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar is not currently possible.

As Bangladesh moves Rohingya to Bhasan Char, UN and aid agencies face a dilemma

Agreeing to the government's requests to offer food aid and health services on the island could legitimize a move decried by rights groups, while refusing to cooperate risks leaving refugees in a worse situation.

“The conditions are nowhere near conducive to safe, sustainable and dignified voluntary returns for the Rohingya. This just takes it up another level that that’s not going to happen in the near term,” said Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International.

Sullivan added that the coup also effectively “resets'' negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the repatriation of Rohingya refugees — nearly 1 million of whom are now in Bangladesh. On Monday, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters it expects those discussions to move forward despite the military takeover.

Military leaders carried out their overthrow on Monday, after refusing to accept the results of the country’s Nov. 8, 2020 election, which they alleged were fraudulent. They arrested Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party secured 83% of parliament’s available seats in the electoral contest.

“The arrests of civilian leaders, including ethnic minority leaders, raises the risk of further violence, which could then lead to further displacement,” Sullivan said.

Humanitarian groups were already struggling to secure access to displaced populations within Myanmar, a challenge that has been severely compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aid workers operating under a “do no harm” ethos have had to weigh their obligations to assist displaced people and other conflict-affected groups against the risk they might inadvertently spread the virus among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Now aid workers will have to contend with a return to full military rule by those who have perpetrated the violence and created Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis.

“It’s just one thing over another,” Sullivan said.

“I completely reject the notion that … the Obama administration somehow elided over human rights in order to embrace democracy or embrace the country.”

— Derek Mitchell, president, the National Democratic Institute

Myanmar’s democratic ‘façade’

Some observers viewed the collapse of Myanmar’s government as a referendum on the approach taken by Western governments, to engage with the country in hopes of seeing it embrace democracy.

“This was a mistake made by the Obama administration and the European Union in particular to try to treat Myanmar as a normal government, a normal democracy, but it never was,” said Azeem Ibrahim, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

“The argument was that despite its fundamental flaws [the country] is still moving in the right direction, and so we don’t want to upset that apple cart. That facade has now been removed.” Ibrahim said.

The Biden administration should make human rights its first priority in engaging with Myanmar, Ibrahim added, including by drawing specific red lines which, if crossed, would trigger punitive measures against the country’s leaders.

Biden indicated Monday he may reimpose U.S. sanctions on the country in response to the military’s seizure of power, “to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition.”

“The Biden Administration’s quick condemnation of the military actions in Burma is a positive first step forward, but obviously only a first step,” Mark Green, executive director of the McCain Institute and former administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote to Devex.

“The civilian-led democratic transition in Burma has obviously been far from perfect, but this seizure of power and detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and others will only lead to greater repression and violence. The detained civilian leaders must be released unconditionally and immediately,” Green added.

Biden’s nominee to lead USAID, Samantha Power, is known as a fierce advocate for international intervention to stop genocide. In nominating her, Biden also announced that the USAID administrator would be elevated to a seat on the National Security Council.

Power has been critical of the international community’s response to Myanmar’s persecution of ethnic minorities, which she described in an interview in 2019 as a “systematic campaign of destruction against the Rohingya.”

“The countries of the world responded limply,” she said, adding that while the humanitarian response has been generous, “the Myanmar government’s calculus will not be altered and Rohingya will not be able to safely return to their homes without far more collective, sustained diplomatic and economic pressure.”

Engagement and leverage

One of the key figures involved in the effort to re-engage with Myanmar during former President Barack Obama’s administration said the criticism that their approach entailed a tradeoff between human rights and democracy promotion is inaccurate.

“I completely reject the notion that … the Obama administration somehow elided over human rights in order to embrace democracy or embrace the country,” said Derek Mitchell, who served as the Obama administration’s U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016 and is now president of the National Democratic Institute.

“Human rights was always at the center, and democracy was always at the center of our policy. We always spoke up about them. The times where we didn’t speak up as loudly as folks may have liked was a tactical thing in order to try to bring change rather than simply grandstand,” he said.

Mitchell characterized some of the criticism he hears as suggesting: “We bet on change, and we lost the bet.”

“That’s precisely the wrong way of viewing what we did,” he said, arguing that the Obama administration “didn’t bet on anything,” but rather actively engaged with the country in order to try to “shape the change.”

Mitchell added that the U.S. government’s lack of engagement in recent years — some of which has been “for good reason,” due to atrocities committed against the Rohingya — has resulted in the U.S. government not having “the same relationships that we did before.”

“I’m very strongly of the belief that engagement brings leverage, that human rights was never downplayed except during the Trump administration, and I think we had much more ability to try to shape five years ago through our engagement policy than we ever did when we had a simple isolation and hammer sanction policy,” Mitchell said.

Due diligence

When a coup takes place, it triggers a legal provision that restricts U.S. foreign assistance to the government until a democratically elected government is returned to power. The largest share of U.S. foreign assistance to Myanmar is for humanitarian relief, which is exempt from those restrictions, and most U.S. funding is channeled through NGOs.

Still, one consequence of the military takeover is likely to be sharper scrutiny of development assistance in the country, Sullivan said, noting that there has already been debate about what should or should not be done to support internally displaced people in camps “where Rohingya are effectively in open-air prisons.”

Donors and implementers should conduct more “due diligence” to ensure their programs and investments are not “reinforcing the effects of ethnic cleansing and genocide,” while also trying to ensure that those in need of assistance are still able to receive it, Sullivan said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.