Burma Coup Shows Why Biden Should Not Have Lifted the Travel Ban

It could have given U.S. leverage for change

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 2, 2021

On January 20, I published a post captioned "Biden Rescinds So-Called 'Muslim Ban': Review would have made sense, but outright repeal is likely an error". Proving my point, on February 1, the military of Burma, also known as Myanmar, staged a coup, detaining the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and declaring a state of emergency. Biden's actions lifted a restriction on the entry of most immigrants from Burma, which could have been used as leverage to force the military to back off.

Burma has had a troubled history in most of the decades since British rule ended in January 1948 (it did not have an easy time before then, either). There was a coup in 1962 that brought a military junta to power, and the return of Suu Kyi in the midst of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 did not bring any immediate change.

She was placed under house arrest in 1989, and remained there on and off for the better part of 21 years (she was detained for 15 years in total), even after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority in parliament in May 1990 (the military refused to relinquish power) and she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

She was eventually elected to parliament in 2012, and the NLD won the first open election since 1990 in November 2015. The military still held a lot of power, and Suu Kyi was prevented from holding the presidency, but she became the de facto leader as "state counsellor". NLD did even better in elections held in 2020 (the military alleged fraud in that election as the basis for the coup).

Her leadership was not without controversy. In October 2016 and August 2017, members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked security outposts in the western state of Rakhine, triggering the "Rohingya crisis". The Rohingya are Muslims in the majority (just less than 88 percent) Buddhist country, and there were about one million of them, most in Rakhine, in 2017.

A crackdown following the ARSA attacks by the Burmese military led an approximate 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. In its 2017 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the State Department described the Burmese government's actions as "ethnic cleansing", and asserted that after ARSA claimed responsibility for the August 2017 attacks:

Augmented security forces, as well as local vigilante groups acting independently or in concert with security forces, then reportedly committed widespread atrocities against Rohingya villagers, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest, and burning of tens of thousands of homes and some religious structures and other buildings.

As a consequence, Burma is facing a genocide lawsuit at the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court "is investigating the country for crimes against humanity." As for Suu Kyi, her "former international supporters accused her of doing nothing to stop rape, murder and possible genocide by refusing to condemn the still powerful military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities."

On January 31, 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued Presidential Proclamation (PP) 9983, a follow-up to PP 9645, derided (collectively and erroneously) as the "Muslim Ban". PP 9983 had barred the entry of nationals of Burma as immigrants, with limited exceptions for those who had assisted the United States government.

As justification for those restrictions, that PP explained that: "Burma does not ... adequately share several types of information, including public-safety and terrorism-related information, that are necessary for the protection of the national security and public safety of the United States."

On January 20, 2021, President Biden signed PP 10141, entitled "Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States", which rescinded PP 9645 and PP 9983 and a preceding executive order. Biden stated therein:

Beyond contravening our values, [Trump's] Executive Orders and Proclamations have undermined our national security. They have jeopardized our global network of alliances and partnerships and are a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over. And they have separated loved ones, inflicting pain that will ripple for years to come. They are just plain wrong.

Following the coup, the Wall Street Journal quoted Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, who explained "targeted sanctions against key military leaders are likely to have a limited effect, but broader sanctions risk punishing the people of Myanmar and pushing the Southeast Asian country closer to China."

Bland is undoubtedly correct. Burma's military chief and new de facto leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is already under U.S. Treasury sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, placed on him by the Trump administration for human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. So is his deputy, Soe Win, and other lower-level military commanders.

And, according to a January 2019 article in U.S. News and World Report, international criticism and sanctions then in effect (again, in response to abuses against the Rohingya and other minority groups, as well as for other reasons) had already created a slowdown in the country's economy, with foreign direct investment declining. The tourism and textile sectors were particularly affected (450,000 garment workers were expected to be put out of work in the country of 57 million within four years), and the country was responding by selling natural resources and marketing itself to China.

That was before the pandemic, and its effect on the world's — and Burma's — economy.

PP 9983 at least gave the United States a bargaining chip that it could have used to force a correction in Burma. But that bargaining chip is now gone. It is questionable though, given its rhetoric, that the Biden administration could threaten to re-impose those sanctions, or to impose even stricter ones.

Topics: Politics