Coup in Myanmar

The West considers sanctions following coup in Myanmar. Power struggle against China smoldering in background.

BERLIN/NAYPYIDAW (Own report) - Following Monday's coup in Myanmar, the EU and the USA are considering imposing new sanctions on that country. Already on Monday, US President Joe Biden declared that he would immediately review the reintroduction of coercive measures. The EU announced yesterday that it will "consider all options at its disposal to ensure that democracy prevails." For a long time during the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany had cooperated closely with the Myanmar military regime for geostrategic reasons, including arms exports. Germany, like the West as a whole, had been disengaging from the country since 1990, again seeking better relations only after China began initiating important geostrategic projects - such as the construction of a transport corridor from the Indian Ocean to southwest China to bypass the Straits of Malacca that Washington can easily block. The West's attempt to outmaneuver Beijing in Naypyidaw has failed. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto head of government ousted by the military yesterday, had recently intensified cooperation with China.

Bonn and the Generals

The relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Myanmar's military had varied over the years. During the Cold War, the FRG had maintained good ties to the generals, who had seized power in 1962. Their country had been an important ally in the confrontation of systems. At times, the FRG had been the country's most important non-Asian trading partner and donor of development aid. According to an expert on Myanmar, Andrew Selth, the FRG had been "the major source for arms technology and a key player in the development of the country's domestic arms industry."[1] The military regime was also licensed to manufacture the Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle. The relations changed, when the confrontation of the systems ended. Myanmar lost its former geostrategic significance with the fundamental transformations taking place from 1989 to 1991. The regime, which had massacred thousands of its opponents and ignored the outcome of the 1990 parliamentary elections, was used by the West as an example to legitimize sanctions with human rights. Over the years, the West has imposed all sorts of coercive measures on Myanmar.[2]

The Burma Road

The interests again shifted in the new millennium. In 2003, China began systematically seeking alternative transport routes for its imports of raw materials from Africa and the Middle East. To a large part, they had to be transported by ship through the Straits of Malacca between Aceh in Indonesia and Malaysia respectively Singapore. Because in case of conflict, the Straits can easily be blocked by the USA, Beijing also developed plans for a transport route directly from the Indian Ocean through Myanmar to the southwest China's Yunnan province. The "Burma Road" served as a historical blueprint. Constructed between 1937 and 1939, it was leading from Burma, a British colony at the time, to China to supply the country during the war against Japan. After several years of planning and construction, a gas pipeline was commissioned in 2013, followed by an oil pipeline in 2017 leading from Myanmar's coast to China. The complementary construction of a railway line for high-speed trains is also under consideration. Myanmar's strategic significance for China, which over the years has become the country's most important economic partner, has renewed the interest of the western states in their power struggle with the People's Republic, since the new millennium.

The Deal with the West

Accordingly, Washington began holding talks with Myanmar's military regime - at first secretly under cover of the humanitarian aid in the wake of the 2008 Nargis Cyclone - then also officially beginning at the end of 2009. The negotiations ultimately led to a deal, which, on the one hand, provided for a degree of the country's overture for western commerce and political contact, and on the other, the country's cautious democratization. Myanmar's generals have always insured their political control of the process. Therefore, the military has constitutionally insured that one-fourth of the seats in parliament as well as the ministries of the interior, of defense and of border issues are reserved for the military. At the same time, they have enormous economic influence with corporate conglomerates such as the Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL).[3] The leading figure for the country's cautious democratization was - and still is - Aung San Suu Kyi, who during the military dictatorship had been held under house arrest for a total of 15 years, to then become the de facto head of the government as "State Counselor," following the formal end of the military dictatorship. The majority of Myanmar's population still regards Suu Kyi as a popular leader.

"Not Reform Oriented"

From the western perspective, the aspired breakthrough in its power struggle against China has, until now, remained unsuccessful in Myanmar. In spite of strong initial interest,[4] German commerce with and companies' investments in that country have remained modest. In the spring of last year, Germany's Minister for Development decided to end the cooperation with Myanmar that had been reinitiated in the summer of 2012. The reason given was insufficient "reform orientation," in Germany's view.[5] And politically, as well, it has proven impossible to roll back Beijing's influence in Naypyidaw. In September 2018, representatives from China and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding on the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a transportation corridor connecting Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest metropolis in the center of the country, with Kunming, the metropolis in the southwest Chinese Yunnan Province. The CMEC will become a link in China's new Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative - BRI). Experts are saying that Aung San Suu Kyi is the main force behind further reinforcement of cooperation with China, as a means of promoting Myanmar's quickest possible development.[6] The generals, on the other hand, are said to worry about Beijing gaining too much influence.

The Next Round in the Battle for Influence

With their putsch, early Monday morning, Myanmar's generals have retaken full power in Naypyidaw. Suu Kyi and numerous politicians of the National League for Democracy (NDL), along with other adversaries of the military have been arrested or placed under house arrest. The western powers have protested against the coup. Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for example, declared on Monday that he "strongly condemns the seizure of power and the accompanying arrests by the military in Myanmar."[7] US President Joe Biden has, meanwhile, mentioned a new round of sanctions against Myanmar. In Germany, the FDP foreign policy maker, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff demanded that economic coercive measures be taken against that country.[8] The EU, in turn, declared yesterday that it will "consider all options at its disposal to ensure that democracy prevails."[9] Sanctions against the armed forces' corporate conglomerate are also in discussion. At the same time, however, they are careful not to drive Myanmar "tighter into China's embrace."[10] The question of sanctions is, thus dominated - as usual - by strategic considerations.


[1] See also Ein alter Partner der Militärs.

[2] See also Erfolglose Sanktionen.

[3] Michael Peel: Myanmar: the military-commercial complex. 01.02.2017.

[4] See also In Chinas Einflusszone (II) and Der Deal der Militärs mit dem Westen.

[5] Rodion Ebbighausen: Deutschland zieht sich aus Myanmar zurück. 14.05.2020.

[6] Hunter Marston: Has the US Lost Myanmar to China? 20.01.2020.

[7] Außenminister Maas zur Machtübernahme durch das Militär in Myanmar. Pressemitteilung des Auswärtigen Amts. Berlin, 01.02.2021.

[8] Putsch in Myanmar: Lambsdorff fordert Sanktionen. 01.02.2021.

[9] EU droht nach Militärputsch in Myanmar mit weiteren Sanktionen. 01.02.2021.

[10] Till Fähnders: Wie ist Myanmars Militärregime beizukommen? 02.02.2021.