The question many in Myanmar are asking is “Why is US President Joe Biden holding onto about $1 billion of the Myanmar people’s sovereign funds while pouring $25 billion in American taxpayers’ money into Ukraine’s resistance?”
For those of us who have worked, in various capacities, in various waves of Burma’s anti-dictatorship resistance, things are increasingly looking like deja vu since the country exploded into a long series of democratic revolts in 1988.
In the international media, the US has consistently promoted itself as the champion of the Wretched of the Earth, to use Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary label for the oppressed. That is, only when such acts of backing resistance advance its core geopolitical interests.
I lived, studied and worked in the US for 17 years (1988-2005), including several years as an activist and rights advocate in Washington, DC. I feel I am reliving the same old nightmare of wanting to believe in the American rhetoric for rights and democracy and yet knowing how empty it really is.
When push comes to shove, American officials only throw humanitarian crumbs at people who lack proxy value.
Washington’s concrete and massive support of strategic convenience in cases of US proxies such as anti-China Taiwan and, most recently, anti-Russian Ukraine brings into relief the glaring gap between its official rhetoric of values and the actual deeds solely anchored in its material interests.
Why is Washington pursuing, with a straight face, this intellectually and morally indefensible gap, particularly in the case of Myanmar’s 20-month-old nationwide popular resistance, both armed and peaceful?
I can offer seven specific factors that I think account for the lip service the Biden administration has been paying to Myanmar’s resistance fighters while it has poured billions of US dollars into the Ukrainian resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
- Some background
On Sept. 21, at the UN General Assembly podium, President Biden talked up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the “singular” achievement of the founders of the post-World War II organization of the “nations united against evil” before proceeding to cite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report about China’s horrible rights violations in Xinjiang. He also called attention to “the horrible abuses against pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities by the military regime in Burma, to the increased repression of women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
On Sept. 26, US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet echoed Biden’s pro-human rights and pro-democracy words as he was quoted saying that “engaging Burma's (Myanmar’s) diverse political stakeholders, including its ethnic groups, is essential to ensuring Burma's return to the path of inclusive, multiparty democracy."
The quote appeared in the US government-run U.S. Asia Pacific Media Hub (U.S. Asia Pacific Media Hub | Facebook) with over 300,000-followers/likes, accompanying a picture of the counselor with a group of representatives from Burma’s pro-democracy movement, specifically the National Unity Government, made up of elected MPs from the 2020 elections in Myanmar, handpicked civil society activists and a sprinkle of Myanmar minorities.
The caption for the picture, meant to signal US “efforts” in support of Myanmar’s democratic aspirations, reads thus: “On the sidelines of #UNGA, U.S. Department of State Counselor Derek Chollet had a constructive meeting with international partners to discuss the worsening crisis in Burma, the need to end the violence, and our efforts to support the people of Burma in their aspirations for peace and democracy. He also met with key representatives from Burma's pro-democracy movement.”
For the last 20 months since the Myanmar military’s universally opposed coup in February 2021, the Biden administration has been having “constructive meetings” with Myanmar and other international partners while the country’s humanitarian and human rights conditions have been “worsening” by the day.
In sharp contrast, Biden proudly told the General Assembly in New York that “the United States has marshaled massive levels of security assistance and humanitarian aid and direct economic support for Ukraine — more than $25 billion to date.”
“Our allies and partners around the world have stepped up as well. And today, more than 40 countries represented in here have contributed billions of their own money and equipment to help Ukraine defend itself.”
And yet, the same US president has remained completely silent on the calls by Myanmar democrats and resistance fighters to make available the $1 billion of the Myanmar people’s funds which the previous NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi deposited in US financial institutions which Biden froze within seven days of the Feb. 1 coup.
According to my friends in the National Unity Government, they have broached the subject with US officials of unfreezing the $1 billon so that the resistance could finance itself and feed and clothe its fighters across Myanmar – in nationwide revolt. The reply – unconvincing – was that the US is safekeeping the Myanmar people’s money for the development of a free, democratic and inclusive Myanmar. The truth is there will be no free or democratic or inclusive Myanmar as long as Myanmar’s criminal military regime, which is routinely committing war crimes and crimes against humanity according to the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, is in power.
If this futuristic-sounding answer does not explain why there is no real support from Washington for Myanmar’s resistance movement, what does?
I offer six different reasons behind this complete lack of real support for Myanmar’s resistance fighters – no less courageous than anti-Russian Ukrainian Presient Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s troops and citizens.
First, Myanmar lacks the kind of geostrategic proxy value for the US boasted by Taiwan and Ukraine.
Second, while Ukraine has a well-documented neo-fascist presence within its power structures, right down to the national armed forces, and the documented killing of a significant number of Russian descendants in the separatist regions, Kyiv's proxy value to Washington (and NATO) far exceeds Ukraine's dark side, hence massive multibillion-dollar security packages and waves of crippling sanctions against Russia.
Third, in contrast, Myanmar's populist Rohingya genocide is held up as if it were a key reason for Washington not financing and arming the Nway Oo Revolution a la Ukraine’s self-defense.
The truth is neither the US (nor NATO for that matter) really cares about the genocide of any group, unless screaming genocide advances Western interests. A decade ago, before joining first the Obama and subsequently Biden administrations, Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, even wrote the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, which documents 50 years of US failure to honor the post-Holocaust pledge “Never again!”
Fourth, despite being engulfed by multiple resistance groups at home, Myanmar’s genocidal military junta is seen as the most likely victor by external players, significantly because it is fully backed by three major powers, namely Putin’s Russia and its two giant neighbors of India and China.
Fifth, commercially and strategically, Myanmar is not as important to the European Union and the US – despite its collective elite conceit, the UK no longer matters in the emerging world order – as it is to China, India, and Russia.
Sixth and finally, Washington -- the loudest pro-democracy supporter of Myanmar’s resistance – has had bitter experiences in Iraq, where the American occupiers dismantled Saddam's national military and Baathist political party without a clue or a plan as to what would replace the known evil, for the better. This thoughtless action triggered the collapse of state structures which held together different ethnic and religious groups and gave rise to Daesh/ISIS while handing Shiite Iran a readymade victory. Washington appears not prepared to score its own goal as China waits to reap the gains across its southern borders.
So we are staring into an abyss in Myanmar and its 55 million people, who are struggling to eke out a living while trying to stay alive amid multiple firefights among two dozen ethnic resistance organizations and the estimated 600 anti-junta People's Defense Forces or militia.
By Maung Zarni
- The author is co-founder and coordinator of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004) and co-founder of the Forces of Renewal for Southeast Asia (www.forsea.co)
OPINION: Six reasons US is not really supporting Myanmar’s democratic resistance
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