Who Lost Myanmar?

Facing its first major crisis, the Biden administration must confront a failure of U.S. diplomacy orchestrated by some of its own players nearly a decade ago.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chats with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chats with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Nov. 19, 2012. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

For Hillary Clinton, the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2011 was a moment of both professional triumph and personal celebration.

Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, was in Yangon, Myanmar, to sit down with the woman she called her “inspiration” as part of a broader, if undeclared, U.S. strategy to drive a wedge between nations on China’s perimeter and Beijing, including long-isolated Myanmar, under the aegis of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. And during a tenure at the State Department in which Clinton hadn’t accomplished much beyond hard-toned speeches and “soft” diplomacy, her opening to Myanmar was a rare diplomatic victory. A year later, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country, ostensibly to promote democracy, but also to nudge Myanmar closer to Washington’s sphere of influence.

A decade later, that strategy lies in ruins. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy activist who hosted Clinton and later ran the country, is back in detention after the military launched yet another coup on Monday. Nor is there much diplomacy afoot: Such is her estrangement from Washington today that in the week before Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest, the Biden administration, fearing just this outcome, had tried and failed to get in contact with her. 

But if the U.S. strategy is in ruins, so is Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation. While many in the West have in recent days called for her release, she is no longer the heroine and human-rights icon she once was. Her cold-blooded assent to the army’s slaughter of the Muslim Rohingya minority has soured her image around the world, to the point where some democracy activists have petitioned Oslo to revoke her Nobel. Once a magnet for human rights pressure on Myanmar from abroad, today she remains largely isolated internationally.

The coup that seems to have hurled Myanmar back three decades is another grim 21st-century lesson in the difficulties of democracy and the staying power of authoritarianism—and the limitations of diplomacy in building a bridge between the two. 

While most Western governments, including the United States, condemned the Myanmar military’s actions, most authoritarian states, led by China, did not. Beijing, which has long resisted the U.S. policy of wooing its client states in Southeast Asia, described the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle.” Last month the Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, visited Myanmar to meet with military chief Min Aung Hlaing, Aung San Suu Kyi’s nemesis—and, this week, the new ruler of the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team knows the Myanmar challenge well, because many of its members were present at the creation. Jake Sullivan, now national security advisor, was in 2011 Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and head of policy planning. Kurt Campbell, now on the National Security Council, was at the time the Asia head for the State Department and played an intimate role in orchestrating the new strategy.

But unlike a decade ago, Biden’s team now must reckon with a bizarre echo of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to undermine Biden’s own thumping election victory at home. After Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won even more votes in the November 2020 election than it had in 2015, the Myanmar military, just as Trump did, declared the vote fraudulent without any evidence—and then it arrested her. 

And, for better or worse, unlike in 2011, the United States doesn’t have the unalloyed appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi to turn to. As Myanmar began its transition to democracy, her continuing high popularity inside the country was a chronic threat to the military junta. U.S. diplomats were acutely aware of this and sought to leverage the lifting of sanctions by making her consent to free and fair elections part of the deal. Eager to get on good terms with the regime—as Aung San Suu Kyi herself reportedly was—Clinton dropped her demand for a United Nations-backed war crimes probe, proffered immediate aid, and gave her assent to the military regime’s control over elections. 

In some ways, the pace and scope of U.S. engagement with Myanmar were driven by Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked in an interview with the BBC in 2011 whether she had conceded too much, Clinton replied that Washington was depending on Aung San Suu Kyi’s assent, saying that “from her perspective, it’s important to validate the political process.”

That continued for years, despite sometimes intense internal debate in the Obama administration over easing sanctions. When in 2016 Obama pledged to lift sanctions on Myanmar, declaring that “It is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government,” Aung San Suu Kyi herself gave the green light. “We think that the time has now come to remove all the sanctions that hurt us economically” so that foreign businesses could invest, she said—even though the country had not, as the U.S. road map presupposed, progressed toward democracy. Even after her party won the 2015 elections—with one-quarter of parliament reserved for the military, in any event—she was denied the presidency because she had been married to a foreigner and had children with foreign citizenship.

Now the Biden administration appears ready to start the whole cycle over again, saying it is “rolling back” sanctions relief, in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki, and suggesting new sanctions are coming. But the administration at first temporized even over calling the military takeover a coup, according to several news reports. And it’s not clear the old playbook will work again, if it ever did before. The United States and other Western countries maintained sanctions on Myanmar for decades with little progress toward democracy. Defenders of the Obama administration’s approach say that while it’s true some of the new team participated in the earlier diplomacy, four years in the interim under Trump have emboldened autocrats everywhere, making diplomacy more difficult and Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to gain power democratically more elusive.

And it’s not clear that Aung San Suu Kyi is the solution, if she ever was. Some Myanmar experts believe that, confident in her domestic popularity, she might have overestimated her political strength and made too many demands of the junta—and particularly of Min Aung Hlaing, the new ruler. 

“I think it’s possible that she could have agreed to some concessions that would have averted the coup,” said Christina Fink, a Myanmar expert at George Washington University. That could have meant allowing Min Aung Hlaing to stay on as commander in chief, or perhaps even to take the nominal presidency. “But the NLD didn’t want to play ball,” Fink said.

Others say she was playing an impossible game. “People have always projected onto her something that she’s not. She always said, ‘I’m a politician, nothing more,’” said Robert Lieberman, a Cornell University physics professor and filmmaker who made the 2011 film They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, and who interviewed the NLD leader extensively. “She had no choice, in the sense that she’s always been on a tight wire, balanced between the military and the rest of the world.”

Except that the rest of the world, after Aung San Suu Kyi sought to cover up the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya at a hearing in front of the U.N. International Court of Justice in 2019, no longer has her on a pedestal. 

Now, the new junta is counting on less of an outcry from former supporters of the once-sainted dissident and a larger comfort zone in a world where authoritarian governments have had four years of encouragement under Trump. And the Biden team that once sought to romance the stone-headed generals of Myanmar may end up with a lot fewer levers for change than it once had.

Feb. 2: This story has been updated with additional information about internal debate in the Obama administration

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh