The recent coup in Myanmar is a troubling and sudden departure from years of civilian governing — one that could mark the return to power of the military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2010. Indeed, the junta has already begun cracking down on civil rights protests in the face of large protest movements regarding the coup and detainment of Aung Suu Kyi, the civilian’s leader. While these developments stand in opposition to U.S. foreign policy aims like promoting democracy and human rights in Myanmar, the U.S. needs to refrain from interference. Previous attempts, including sanctions, to sway the Burmese government in response to civil rights abuses and ethnic conflicts were not effective for Myanmar’s relationship with the West. For this reason, they are unlikely to begin working now. Additionally, imposing economic sanctions could have adverse effects, alienating both their leadership and ordinary citizens, thus pushing the regime closer to China. Furthermore, intervention is not in the interests of the U.S.; the commitment to our stated goals of democracy and human rights should not be a license for the U.S. to interfere in the affairs of another nation, especially when the consequences of doing so are unclear.
Sanctions, among other types of economic retribution, have become favorite measures among U.S. authorities; in Myanmar’s case, these measures are unlikely to work. For most of its history, Myanmar has not had a significant diplomatic or economic relationship with the U.S. Years of military rule and disastrous economic policies have isolated Myanmar from emerging international organizations. Only following the rise of the civilian government and subsequent economic reform did the country see significant growth. The U.S.’s role in this growth was minimal; Myanmar’s largest trade partners and sources of investment are overwhelmingly Asian nations. For these reasons, sanctions will most likely not work; the Burmese government and the country as a whole do not have enough of an economic relationship with the US for the latter to exert real political influence through sanctions.
Sanctions have also failed to work in the past: when they were levied against Myanmar’s military leadership by the U.S. and EU in 2003 for anti-democratic actions, and in 2018 over the Rohingya crisis, they failed to achieve the desired effects, and Myanmar’s main trade relationships were unaffected. At this point, the U.S. faces a very similar situation.
Intervention could alienate the Burmese government and people, resulting in other countries acquiring a greater influence in Myanmar. Although U.S.-aligned economic powers in Asia typically echo the U.S.’s message on political repression and ethnic conflict in Myanmar, few of them follow through on the economic front. With renewed sanctions by the U.S., the junta finds itself in a position similar to one it faced in 2003, 2007, and 2018: as the West shunned Myanmar, Myanmar turned to Asia. China, in particular, has been a reliable defender of Myanmar on the global stage, and it stands to gain the most from the country being turned away by the U.S. China would gain more influence in the Indo-Pacific region, furthering its ambitions as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, while gaining access to Myanmar’s natural resources. Cautious diplomatic interaction on the part of the U.S., rather than punitive economic or military intervention, is necessary to preserve relations with Myanmar and to prevent it from falling under further Chinese influence. Economic or military escalation beyond sanctions would be an even greater mistake. Such measures would not only hurt the Burmese government but also its people, as some businesses who adopt pro-coup stances due to outside pressure may be harmed either through direct state violence or loss of business. Any military intervention would place people in indirect harm. As the situation in Myanmar continues to develop, the U.S. needs to avoid such escalations.
In any case, intervention is not within the long-term strategic interests of the U.S. The situation at this moment is highly variable, with ongoing protests and other developments potentially posing risks to the junta’s renewed grip on power. This, combined with heightened international attention, makes for an unpredictable scenario. As such, it is unclear what consequences U.S. actions will have at this time. Further intervention may serve as a destabilizing factor and would needlessly complicate the situation. In the near term, intervention may lead to the U.S. being shut out of economic opportunities with Myanmar as their leadership is pushed closer to China and other Asian powers, as the controlling junta seeks stable sources of support. This would be detrimental to the U.S.’s efforts to restore strategic influence throughout Asia. For the U.S. to maintain its relationship with Myanmar while advocating for democracy, steady engagement is the prudent course of action. Economic escalation would threaten revenue streams and discourage business ties as firms find it increasingly difficult to conduct business in politically unstable countries.
Intervention in Myanmar at this time must be avoided, lest the U.S. make the same mistakes as before. Previous attempts to intervene through sanctions have proven ineffective, and at this sensitive moment in Burmese politics, it may intensify instability. Furthermore, Myanmar’s position in the Indo-Pacific, especially as China’s influence grows in that region, makes it unwise for the U.S. to interfere. It is important to understand that a lack of intervention is not the same as the U.S. agreeing with the overthrow of the civilian government. The U.S. approach could benefit from flexibility regarding Myanmar’s political and economic developments.