by Jake Moran
Image: Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2018 (via Getty Images).
In the past few decades, the relationship between the United States and Burma (personally identified as Myanmar) has oscillated between harmony and tension. Burma is a mountainous country located in Southeast Asia that borders Bangladesh to the east and Thailand to the west. And like many other countries in the region, the United States has attempted to reconcile with it in hopes of establishing a long and prosperous affiliation. However, the nation’s recent demonstrations, including totalitarianism and genocide, display a stark antithesis to ideals held by the free world and prevent this reform from being made. Throughout history, the United States has opted in and out of economic support with Burma to express its approval or disapproval, and should continue this trend by maintaining its economic sanctions to preserve the rights of the Burmese people.
To see the clearest picture of where both countries stand with one another, it is necessary to understand Burma’s relationship with the United States throughout history and how modern-day Burma came to be. Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948, and began as a democracy with a parliamentary system. However, in 1962, Burma underwent a coup d’etat, and the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) took rule under leader Ne Win. While in power, the party implemented policies that damaged trade and ended Burma’s involvement in the oil industry. As a result, Burmese people were discontent with the socialist party that had left its economy in ruin. In 1988, the country underwent another military coup d’etat known as the 8888 Uprising. Nicknamed after its climax which occurred on August 8th, 1988, it involved a series of nationwide protests by Burmese civilians opposing the BSPP. Throughout the six month long affair, strikes throughout the country spread, most of which included violent protests against the police; an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 citizens were killed and imprisoned as a result. Despite its brutality, Burma’s government sees the uprising as a positive revolution due to its economic shift towards capitalism, and the event is revered as a turning point in its history.
Following the 8888 Uprising, BSPP leader Ne Win was forced to resign and the State Peace and Development Council, a military junta, became the government that would rule Burma. The military junta taking power combined with capitalism emerging as the primary economic system led to an ideological shift from representative democracy to militarism throughout the nation. In addition, Burma changed its name to the Union of Myanmar following the events of the uprising in an attempt to improve its chances of international recognition. Burma was the name given to the nation by Britain when it was still one of its colonies, and the nation wanted to establish its newfound sovereignty. However, due to the 8888 Uprising romanticizing a military dictatorship as opposed to a democracy, many western countries like the United States do not recognize its title change and continue to officially refer to it as Burma.
Once the United States took its helm as a global superpower following World War II, it began its international efforts to maintain democracies and protect the free world. The United States was displeased with Burma’s human rights violations, including lack of religious freedom and forced labor upon its citizens. As a result, after the events of the 8888 Uprising, the United States made its discontent with the presiding military rule in Burma clear. In 1996, the Massachusetts government attempted to pass a law that would place a 10% penalty on Burmese investments, but failed due to the policy’s unconstitutionality. In 2003, Congress passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act which banned Burmese imports and exports. These were just a few of many sanctions passed by the United States that attempted to isolate Burma due to its violations. The countries’ strenuous relationship remained poor throughout the entirety of the 2000’s.
The next decade brought a beacon of hope to Burma, as the relationship between the two nations began to improve tremendously due to public demands for democracy in Burma. In 2010, Burma held its first election in over 25 years, and Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power and became a cause for political reform throughout the nation. Human rights were expanded towards prisoners and laborers, and press censorship was lessened. Burma had suddenly steered on a path towards democracy, and the United States noticed. In response, Former First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Burma in November of 2011 and met with Burmese President Thein Sein. Former United States President Barack Obama visited the country in 2012 and became the first US president to visit Burma. Diplomacy between the two nations improved, and progress was made. The United States would end up eliminating sanctions, and trade between the two countries ensued; relations had finally gotten on the right track due to Burma’s shift in democratic and human rights views.
Unfortunately, this upward change would not last long, and Burma’s decade of democratic reform came to a sudden halt. Despite lacking evidence, the Burmese military claimed voter fraud within the November 2020 elections and declared a state of emergency. This loophole was able to be exploited because Burma’s Constitution of 2008 enumerates that a state of emergency transfers power to the military top general. On February 1st, 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration was overthrown in a military coup, and Burma has been under tyrannic military rule since. General Min Aung Hlaing, decade-long commander-in-chief of the Burmese military who ushered the arrest of the government, currently leads the military State Administration Council (SAC) and holds the widely popular Suu Kyi along with other members of Burmese parliament in detention on grounds of corruption. Although there have been numerous groups of protestors speaking out against the new military rule, military security forces have silenced them through consistent attacks against civilians and protestors. The agglomeration of brute military rule by the SAC and tyranny against civilians display how Burma has fallen into a state of catastrophe.
In addition to losing all democratic progress and becoming a military state, Burma also commits another atrocity. In 2016, the Burmese military began the Rohingya Genocide, which consists of the ethnic cleansing of Muslims within the country. The Rohingya are a predominantly Islamic ethnic group and represent the largest population of Muslims in Burma, as an estimated 1.4 million Rohingya lived in the country prior to the genocide. Burma, primarily a Buddhist nation, views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants, and their perceived illegitimate citizenship combined with their religious distinctions has made them a target. It is estimated that over 25,000 Rohingya have been killed, and another 700,000 were forced to take refuge elsewhere. The United States responded to the genocide by withdrawing all military aid and revoking trade benefits. Furthermore, the United States re-imposed sanctions throughout 2017 and 2018 to once again condemn Burma for its actions. The Rohingya Genocide remains ongoing to this day and Burma’s military still holds a fierce grip on the government.
Ever since the coup occurred in 2021, Burma has been a violent, totalitarian regime. Burma’s military is currently orchestrating a humanitarian crisis, and it would be vastly inappropriate for the United States to extend aid or trade with a country that is currently under military rule and commiting genocide for the following reasons. First, the United States’ economic sanctions against Burma have prevented it from overtly mobilizing its economy. These sanctions may have the potential to ultimately pressure Burma to improve its human rights record like in the early 2010’s. If the economy is weak, it may limit the military’s ability to maintain control of the country, which could lead to a shift towards a more democratic government. Second, the United States’ moral reputation would be severely questioned by indirectly supporting the genocide in Burma. The United Nations and other international organizations have documented and condemned the Burmese military's actions, notably the forced displacement, rape, and killing of the Rohingya population. If the United States were to support Burma despite the denunciations of the United Nations, it would likely deteriorate the UN’s stability; the US is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and its doing so would oppose the UN’s effort to ensure global peace and prosperity.
Although the United States has the potential to get militarily involved in Burma, it is an unrealistic expectation as there is an insufficient amount of publicity. Additionally, other countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Serbia have provided aid to Myanmar's military, and could provoke them if the United States were to intervene. Therefore, economic sanctions guarantee a much safer future compared to military involvement. Surrounding nations have yet to show discontent with the United States’ sanctions on Burma, and sanctions are unlikely to lead to a diplomatic butterfly effect that could backfire against it.
The United States must not back down on its economic sanctions against Burma, as it sends a strong message of condemnation against military rule and human rights abuses. If this plan is followed through, the United States’ sanctions might help steer Burma towards a more peaceful environment, regardless of its current state. As the democratic figurehead of the world, it is important that the United States compel Burma to get back on the right track and once again become a place in which human rights can flourish.
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