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The Western response to the coup in Myanmar exposes its fickle support for democracy

February 3, 2021 at 11:21 am

Soldiers keep watch near a guesthouse, where members of parliament reside, in the country’s capital Naypyidaw on February 3, 2021 [STR/AFP via Getty Images]

The situation in Myanmar is fluid, and all scenarios are possible following the military coup. It is worth looking, therefore, at generalisations about coups rather than specifics, from an Arab and Egyptian perspective in particular.

It is clear that making concessions towards the military is no guarantee of protection against a coup. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in Myanmar in 2015 after a long struggle. She received international support and several human rights awards, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize. However, once in power, she abandoned her principles and defended ethnic cleansing against minorities, most importantly the attempted genocide of the Muslim Rohingya minority in her own country.

She continued to accommodate and make concessions to the military, the latest of which was participation in the 2020 elections, despite the exclusion of minorities such as Muslims and Christians. This complied with the wishes of the military and its racist policies. Despite such concessions, her government faced a military coup on Monday morning. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested with other politicians.

While there is a need to accommodate deep state institutions, the most important of which is arguably the army, during transitional stages, this must not be at the expense of principles or the other parties in the political equation.

READ: Myanmar soldiers confess to mass murder and rape of Rohingya Muslims 

In Egypt, such accommodation of the military happened with both the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition affiliated with the National Salvation Front, and the revolutionary youths who stood with them. Both parties will claim that they did not ally themselves with the military, or that they had their reasons and political calculations at that time. However, the events in question were recent, and the facts are still known. Far from pointing fingers, the result is that the military staged a coup against the late President Mohamed Morsi, and overthrew the elected president.

As Aung San Suu Kyi and her party know, the road to political change is long and dangerous. They fought against military rule from the end of the 1980s. This ended in 2015 when the first democratic elections were held in Myanmar. Her National League for Democracy won and the country began to witness a gradual transformation. The army dealt a fatal blow to this process on Monday.

In Tunisia, too, the democratic transition is faltering, and in Egypt the bloody military coup ended its transformation in 2013. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the 2015 Houthi coup, and Saudi Arabia’s abandonment of Yemen at that point, ended the transitional process that resulted from the 2014-2015 popular revolution. Even in Turkey, which witnessed its last soft coup in 1997 when Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign from the premiership, a military coup almost succeeded in 2016 as it sought to put an end to more than 15 years of democratic transition.

The conclusion is that such a transition is not easy, and that losing a battle in the struggle with tyranny does not mean the end of the struggle. Frustration alone can end the hopes for democratic transformation, not military coups.

It is important to note that people should not wait for change to come from the West. There is a fundamental difference between the way that the US and other Western countries responded to the Myanmar coup and the coup led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi against President Morsi in Egypt. Condemnation of the Myanmar coup has been widespread across the West. At the UN, a diplomatic source announced that an urgent meeting of the Security Council might be held to discuss the issue, while Washington and other Western capitals threatened sanctions against the military if the coup did not end.

In Egypt, the situation was completely different. No Western country condemned the coup openly and unambiguously, and Washington only suspended military support temporarily until the situation was studied and understood. The US State Department didn’t even use the word “coup” to describe what happened.

READ: Israel aids genocidal Myanmar while urging the world to remember the Holocaust

Why the double standards? It is unacceptable to claim that what happened in Egypt in 2013 was not a coup; the definition of a military coup is very clear, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel to know it. However, the reality is that there are political reasons for the difference in responses, determined by US interests.

Egypt is the most important Arab country and it is necessary for it to remain within Washington’s political orbit, and thus that of the occupation state of Israel, whose positions largely determine US foreign policy in the Middle East. The West was not happy with the outcome of the democratic transitions in the Arab world, and in Egypt in particular, and it will never be happy with them if they mean that the West-friendly dictators are overthrown. Hence, the West will never defend democracy in the region, and will never oppose the military coups there as long as the army leaders are committed to Camp David and US interests.

What we should learn from what is happening in Myanmar is that the West’s support for democracy is fickle and cannot be trusted. Western governments will always do what is best for themselves, nobody else. As such, the people in the region remain the best bet for change. We should not expect much from the Biden administration, if anything at all. Expectations are in the realm of wishes, and they are not part of the real world.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 1 February 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.