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How A Nobel Prize Winner And A Military Dictatorship Fooled America

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Dylan Housman Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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The floundering state of democracy in Myanmar is now out in the open for the world to see, but military leaders in the country were able to deceive their counterparts and media across the western world for years.

The country was showered with praise for its apparent transition to democracy in the last decade, winning visits from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama and getting sanctions lifted from European and North American governments. Meanwhile, military officials still maintained a large degree of control and human rights abuses were still being committed.

In the aftermath of the recent military coup in the country, President Joe Biden said the United States had lifted sanctions on Myanmar due to “progress toward democracy” and that those decisions could be reversed if this current trajectory back toward open authoritarianism continues. Those sanctions were lifted by Obama, who was also the first American president to visit the country, doing so on two occasions in 2012 and 2014.

Myanmar was officially run by an authoritarian military government from 1962 until the late 2000s. A constitutional referendum was held in 2008 and the country began its transition toward becoming a republic, but the first general elections held in 2010 were deemed fraudulent by many observers. (RELATED: Myanmar Blocks Facebook Access After Coup)

The first openly-contested legitimate elections in the country were held in 2015. The longtime opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, and Htin Kyaw became Myanmar’s first non-military president.

The Chairwoman of the NLD Aung San Suu Kyi later became the country’s state counsellor, the de facto head of government. She couldn’t become president herself because she was barred from doing so by the aforementioned new constitution governing Myanmar’s transition from full military rule.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 in the days following the disputed 2010 elections, after being held for nearly 15 years over a period starting in 1989. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was the face of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement.

When Obama lifted sanctions on Myanmar in 2016, he said the country had made “substantial advances to promote democracy, including historic elections in November 2015.” However, critics at the time said the move may be premature and cited treatment of the ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims as a concern, according to PBS.

Those 2015 elections were held under the 2008 constitution, but that constitution doesn’t allow for the transition to a full-blown democracy that has been portrayed by some. (RELATED: Just 16% Of Americans Believe Democracy Is Working ‘Very Well,’ Poll Shows)

The 2008 Burmese Constitution requires 25% of legislative seats to be held by military leaders. One of the six goals of the drafting commission was to give the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) the “leading political role in the future state,” according to Chief Justice Aung Toe. The NLD and Suu Kyi were not allowed to participate in the writing of the document and urged supporters to reject it, according to Reuters.

In reality, Myanmar’s “democratic transition” more closely resembled a dressed-up continuation of the military junta’s rule. The country was still lacking in human rights and transparency, most obviously in the genocidal persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. Things came full circle in January 2021, when after the country’s second general election under the “democratic” constitution, military leaders carried out a blatant coup and once again detained Suu Kyi.

International observers have said what’s happening to the more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims that have been forced from their homes is “genocide.” A 2017 report from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights says thousands of members of the minority group were brutally murdered, raped and had their homes burned down by the Tatmadaw. The report examines cases starting in late 2016, after the Obama administration praised the Burmese democracy and lifted sanctions.

Suu Kyi’s response to the genocide turned much of the world against her. The iconic activist was thought by many to have betrayed her values by defending the Tatmadaw against accusations of crimes against humanity. Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of its ambassador of conscience award in 2018.

The Nobel Prize winner even appeared in front of the International Court of Justice to defend Myanmar against genocide charges in what was described by some as a “shocking” move. She reportedly never used the word “Rohingya” in her testimony.

American leadership was caught off-guard by the reality of the situation in Myanmar, by their own admission. Not only did Obama and Clinton travel there themselves and work to loosen sanctions; lower-ranked officials expressed dismay at what was happening to the Rohingya Muslims. Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote a piece in The Atlantic in 2019 titled “What Happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?”

Derek Mitchell, ambassador to Myanmar during Obama’s second term, gave a stark account to Politico: “We never felt that there was an imminent danger that required us to forgo a diplomatic engagement approach for a more hostile policy. We didn’t want to get rid of everything over an issue that we didn’t know would actually blow up this bad.”

Now, having once again detained Suu Kyi after using her to fool the United States, the Tatmadaw sits in an advantageous position. The country was able to attract widespread western investment during its apparent democratic transition, leaving its economy in a far stronger state than it was a decade ago.

Myanmar’s military leaders have succeeded in gaining some financial independence from China while maintaining a strong grip on power in the country. They still have a strong backer in Beijing, too: China blocked a U.N. Security Council condemnation of the recent coup. (RELATED: How One Country’s Military Coup Could Be Biden’s First Big Test On China)

China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner, and heavy recent investment from other Asian states like Japan, Singapore and South Korea is unlikely to go away even after the coup, according to The New York Times. It appears the Tatmadaw has gotten the better of the United States since 2008. Now, the Biden administration will have its first big test in what is arguably becoming the most geopolitically important region of the world.