Feb. 1, the Burmese military took over the democratically elected government, declaring the country’s Nov. 2020 election illegitimate because of unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud.

The Burmese military ruled Myanmar for several decades until 2011, when they allowed democratic elections for the first time. The military reestablished its authoritarian rule this month after the people didn’t elect enough pro-military representatives.

The University of Wisconsin’s Southeast Asia Research Group and members of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies released a statement condemning the Burmese coup and “call[ing] upon the international community to denounce this violation of democracy, freedom and human rights.”

Feb. 4, President Biden denounced the coup and advocated for reestablishing democracy in Burma. He also imposed new economic sanctions on Burmese military officials which froze about $1 billion of their assets in the U.S. and prevented them from doing business in the states. The Biden administration also successfully garnered support from many democratic countries around the world — such as Great Britain and Canada — and implored them to denounce the coup and declare economic sanctions.

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While President Biden’s initiative to support democracy worldwide is admirable, it seems unlikely to change the worsening situation in Burma. The Burmese military admitted they expected the sanctions and it certainly did not stop them from overthrowing the government. What seems more likely to happen is the Burmese military will develop closer ties with China instead of the democratic governments of the world.

For decades, China has been interested in extracting natural resources from Burma. Under the military government’s long rule, Chinese state-owned firms extorted the Burmese government for exclusive logging and drilling rights. The Chinese firms deforested much of Northern Burma and covered the country with pipelines to extract their gas.

The U.S. and many other countries had emplaced strict economic sanctions on Burma for its authoritarian rule, which caused the Burmese military to develop closer economic ties with China. But, the Burmese military allowed for democratic elections in 2011 because of their dissatisfaction with unfair Chinese business practices and fears of becoming a Chinese vassal state.

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Since then, the U.S. invested about $1.5 billion into the Burmese economy and government over the past decade. The U.S. eased economic sanctions as the Burmese government became more open to cooperating with the U.S. government in helping alleviate poverty amongst its citizens and help fight the global drug trade.

The U.S. introduced several productive policies in Burma, such as scholarships for Burmese students to study in the U.S. and about 1500 English language instructors to teach in Burma.

Biden’s new sanctions, however, threaten to end many of these productive initiatives. Terminating these policies would be detrimental to the Burmese people, who already suffer under extremely repressive economic and political conditions.

If President Biden continues his sanctions, it seems likely the Burmese military government will align closer with China and continue its repressive rule. Rumors of such an alliance already circulate in Burma. Many believe the Chinese government is assisting the Burmese military to disperse pro-democracy protests and censor the internet, though the Chinese ambassador denies these claims.

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Since the Burmese military expresses little concern over the sanctions or their repression of the pro-democracy movements, it appears unlikely the democratic government will return to power soon. The Burmese military does not fear economic sanctions because they know they can receive aid from the Chinese government. The military government will likely have little choice but to ask for Chinese investment if the sanctions continue.

The Chinese state media initially described the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle.” While supporting the United Nations Security Council statement denouncing the coup, Chinese diplomats released a separate statement calling China a “friendly neighbor” to Burma and asking for “dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

The Chinese government has always been interested in the stability and economic opportunities of its neighbor, Burma. In the past, the Chinese government never opposed dealing with the previous military government. The Chinese government’s friendly statements towards the military government indicates their implicit acceptance of the political situation in Burma and their commitment to continue doing business there.

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With U.S. investment halted and other countries withdrawing their economic commitments from Burma, Chinese firms will have a near monopoly on investment opportunities in the country. Chinese investment will continue to prop up the military government and allow the military’s repression to continue.

Matt Vender, a UW graduate student studying anthropology in Burma, wrote an article for the SEARG newsletter explaining the Myanmar Coup.

“Observing the movement from afar, I’m struck by the potent optimism the protestors have for their capacity to take control over their own national future,” said Vender. “The road to true democracy in Myanmar remains long — but people are working hard to ensure that this coup is only a detour.”

If President Biden hopes to reestablish democracy in Burma, he needs to find other means to do so. One means could possibly be supplying the pro-democracy movements with supplies to continue their resistance to the military. But, President Biden will likely have to decide how important the future of Burma is to his overall foreign policy agenda.

Hayden Kolowrat ([email protected]) is a graduate student studying Southeast Asian studies.