Myanmar: Biden Rides Waves of Nationalism


Tasnim News Agency

Displaced Rohingya in 2017.

Joe Biden’s actions in his short time as president have been largely uncontroversial, with his rollout of vaccines proving effective and his legislation not overtly partisan. However, his administration’s failure to address the genocide in Myanmar should cause us to question the White House’s competency in the four years to come. Joseph Biden owes it to the American people to make clear his position on the situation in Myanmar, followed by swift military action, with or without international support. 

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has been plagued with political and socioeconomic strife since the latter half of the 20th century. The military and democratically elected officials have traded power for years, and the Rohingya Muslim population has been persecuted by both groups for many decades. The late 20th century saw increasing discriminatory laws and practices against this ethnic group, which escalated in 2017 to a genocide carried out by the military. While most Rohingya now live outside the country, in exile, thousands remain in Myanmar. The Rohingya struggle is made worse by the military’s recent enforcement of martial law, arrest and murder of dissidents and political prisoners such as state counselor and de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ranking members of the National League of Democracy, an anti-military political group. This coup has cemented the military as the new power in Myanmar. 

Even before Joe Biden’s inauguration, former president Donald Trump refused to take significant action against Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya people. If Biden were to take concrete action against the Burmese military, he would prove himself to be one of the most globally conscious presidents in recent memory. However, given the genocide and the reinstatement of military rule in Myanmar, Biden has no other choice than to interfere through American military action. 

Skeptics might dismiss the human rights abuses in Myanmar as irrelevant to Biden’s administration given the coronavirus pandemic, but our problems at home must not prevent us from responding to crimes against humanity that are being committed abroad. Biden’s tunnel vision on domestic issues may not be as explicit as Donald Trump’s, but it does implicitly maintain the status quo of keeping the “peace” even when it means ignoring abhorrent violations of human rights. 

Our disinterest in this conflict shows that we have not fully learned the lessons of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who once wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It may be difficult to empathize with the struggles of a group with whom Americans are not historically familiar, but our refusal to respond shows that justice at home is being eroded. Joe Biden’s campaign promise of the pursuit of justice in America is empty if we turn a blind eye to greater injustices worldwide. 

Perhaps the greatest ethical dilemma related to intervening is the desire to preserve Myanmar’s national sovereignty. Yet Myanmar has unquestionably forfeited its right to sovereignty as a state by committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people. Those opposed to military intervention might argue that intervention sets a precedent of the United States as the arbiter of world peace. Of course, no nation should dictate the behavior of the entire world, but if the United States stands alone in its willingness to act, we need to take the risk of possibly overreaching our authority for the sake of Rohingya lives.

That said, international cooperation is usually preferable to unilateral action, if only for cultivating other nations’ goodwill. An international coalition makes military intervention harder to object to and less likely to create large amounts of collateral damage. The United Nations serves as a semi-adequate apparatus to pursue international cooperation in disarming tyrannical regimes. As the UN sees the highest participation of any international organization, the US must first explore the path of cooperation through the UN. The American proposal is, however, likely to face opposition from China and Russia in the UN Security Council. 

If the U.S. cannot form a coalition in the UN, we could implore members of NATO to join forces against the military of Myanmar, given that NATO has consistently been a force for the protection of human rights in the modern world. The United Kingdom, which often sees eye-to-eye with the U.S. on issues of military intervention, would almost certainly be willing to cooperate. However, these partnerships, although preferable, should not prevent us from liberating the Rohingya people and supporting those advocating for democracy in Myanmar. 

Those eternally skeptical of military action often propose economic sanctions as a solution to similar problems. Biden, a longtime bipartisan force in government, of course, opted for this path. In February, he imposed sanctions on the generals responsible for the military coup that kept them from accessing around $1 billion that they kept in the U.S. However, time and time again, this strategy has proved flawed, because the governments who face sanctions often find ways to shift the burden onto their oppressed citizens, thereby worsening the situation for the Burmese people. This would further punish the Rohingya, who have historically been economically disadvantaged. 

Why, you may ask, should it fall upon the United States to defend global justice? The answer to this question is simple. It is written into our founding documents and our guiding principles as a nation that injustices cannot be tolerated when we have the ability to end them. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” This statement might have been directed towards the specific injustices imposed on the colonies by the British, but these words were inspired by philosopher John Locke, who claimed life, liberty, and property as the inalienable rights of man. 

Despite these being the core tenets of our nation, they are so basic that the rejection of these rights by our adversaries is proof enough that these adversaries are forces for evil in our world. If Joe Biden’s administration doesn’t see this, he will have dangerously altered our values as a nation and undermined his ability to prove his competence as the leader of the free world.