In this recurring series of posts, I’ll be highlighting some of the most important and interesting developments in foreign affairs that may have been missed by casual news consumers. These posts may be infrequent, but that all depends on what catches my eye in the realm of international events. I’ll generally describe a few items in each Foreign Telegram, giving an overview of the news itself and some brief commentary on what it all means. Without further throat-clearing, here’s the Foreign Telegram for February 3, 2021.
As you may have seen, I wrote quite a lengthy piece about the Capitol riot of January 6, in which I denounced the rioters & insurrectionists who breached the nation’s seat of governance that day. What I did not say, however, was that the riot was a coup d’etat. That term has a very specific meaning, one that involves the military deposing the legitimate leadership of a nation and either taking control themselves or selecting a puppet regime to rule in their place. One can spot the difference between a failed insurrection and a proper coup in the events of the past few days in South Asia.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a South Asian country located between Thailand and Bangladesh, bordering the Bay of Bengal. It had been ruled by a military clique since a 1962 coup followed its initial independence from Great Britain in 1948. During the Obama administration, Myanmar made a widely-publicized and lauded transition into a more democratic state, although the military still controlled much of the governing apparatus. Now the Burmese military has dropped the democratic facade entirely and engaged in another coup d’etat against the ‘democratically’ elected leadership of the country. Earlier this week, they deposed the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from her position as leader of the ruling party and imprisoned her on trumped-up charges. The military is now promoting a year-long ‘state of emergency’, something which will likely extend far longer than 365 days. Right now, it seems that the dream of democracy in Myanmar is once again deferred.
Clearly, this is a bad story and a sad one for a nation which has had to deal with so much internal strife over the past half-century. The US must absolutely sanction the military leaders who executed the coup and pressure China (Myanmar’s suzerain and closest ally) to not back the coup plotters. Unfortunately, the US does not have much leverage to use against the anti-democratic military leaders, but we should use what we do have. For the most part, that means that this is largely China’s problem to solve. Given their own history in Myanmar, I do not expect them to be of much help — as long as the government is stable (and military juntas often are), the Chinese Communist Party is happy. With respect to Ms. Suu Kyi, this ends a hard fall from grace for her and a return to prison, somewhere she languished for decades before her release in 2010. Although she has won the Nobel peace prize and was lauded as a paragon of democracy and human rights, the Burmese leader conspicuously defended her own country’s genocidal cleansing of its Muslim population, known as the Rohingya. In many news reports about this coup that inconvenient fact is often left out. As always, international relations are more complex than they initially appear. One can only hope that the people of Myanmar get the representative government they deserve, one which respects the human rights of all its citizens, regardless of religion, political belief, or ethnicity.
Major political developments have also been in the offing this week in Russia, as the top political opponent to Vladimir Putin was arbitrarily sentenced to nearly 3 years in a prison colony. That man’s name is Alexey Navalny, and he has been an enormous thorn in the Russian dictator’s side for over a decade now. If you’ve heard his name recently, it is likely due to his poisoning at the hands of the Russian government late last year. Navalny only barely survived that attempt on his life, escaping to get proper medical care in Germany. He valiantly returned to Russia upon convalescing and was promptly arrested for his troubles. While in jail awaiting further charges, Navalny and his allies launched a public campaign to demand his release and to pressure the Putin regime. The biggest part of that campaign was the publishing of a video claiming (supported by a great deal of evidence) that Putin built — with stolen funds — a palace on the Black Sea worth more than $1 billion. This opulent mansion is a slap in the face to regular Russian citizens, who have a fairly low standard of living and have been hit especially hard by the decline in oil prices over the past few years. Navalny’s video has now been viewed more than 100 million times and has become a sensation in an otherwise tightly controlled Russian media space. The protests stemming from his arrest and publication of the palace video have been the largest in recent Russian history, possibly the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Navalny is a hero of small-d democracy, fighting against a brutal dictator who would like nothing more than to see him killed. As evidenced by the near-success at killing him via poisoned underpants (yes, seriously), Putin is more than willing to try. He has successfully bumped off several other political opponents in the past, cutting down anyone who amasses enough power or popular support to threaten the autocratic regime. Candidates are routinely barred from running for office, but the most ‘dangerous’ political figures are either exiled, imprisoned, or killed on Putin’s orders. The names of Navalny’s predecessors in Putin’s crosshairs are storied and many. They include the (former) billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who gained enough prestige and power outside of Putin’s control that he had to be destroyed; he was convicted of several offenses in show trials, had his company and wealth confiscated, and was forced into exile after a multiyear prison sentence. Boris Nemtsov was a liberal politician who had success under the Yeltsin regime in the 1990s and became a fierce opponent of Putin’s authoritarianism; like Navalny, he released several investigative reports shining a light on governmental corruption and involvement in secret military actions in Ukraine. For his service to the Russian people, he was shot four times in the back by assassins while walking on a Moscow bridge within eyeshot of the Kremlin.
The list continues almost infinitely, yet Navalny is not cowed. His brief remarks in a Russian courtroom while awaiting sentencing are must-read material and are incredibly courageous given the circumstances in which they were delivered. In the short speech, Navalny lampoons Putin, saying that he will forever be known — in the tradition of historical Russian rulers like Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise — as Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner. His remarks show a bravery that is rare in these times, or any other. His statements were clear, concise, and to the point: Vladimir Putin is a dictator, a murderer, and a weakling. I strongly suggest that you read his whole speech at the link above, as it is a masterpiece of political rhetoric. One can only hope that Navalny avoids the fate of Nemtsov and lives to bring the Russian people the democracy they have been clamoring for since 1905.
Fair warning: please do not click the link above and read the BBC story therein unless you have a high tolerance for graphic descriptions of troubling, disgusting, and abhorrent actions by the Chinese government and its operatives. It involves mass rape, sterilization, and torture. If you can stomach it, it is worth reading the report simply to understand the depth of the depravity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its minions in Xinjiang.
As has been known for years now, the Chinese government has been imprisoning the Uighur Muslim population of the country’s northwest — a province called Xinjiang — in what they call ‘re-education camps’, but are more properly known as concentration camps. The goal is to completely eliminate any and all traces of the Uighur Muslim culture, ethnic group, and way of life. The methods involved are forceful and do not stop at national borders; there have been credible reports of the tentacles of the CCP reaching into countries near and far (including the US) to harass and threaten Uighur refugees. Suffice it to say, this is genocide, period. (If you wish to learn more about the situation in Xinjiang and the genocide of the Uighurs, I would suggest reading the work of the Australian researcher Adrian Zenz, an expert on the subject who has done a great deal to bring these horrors to light.)
These reports are not entirely new, but they are consistent and chilling. The United States and her allies will not get into a shooting war with a peer-level nuclear power over the treatment of the Uighurs, but we must stand up for these oppressed people and make it clear that this genocide is intolerable. Possible actions include large-scale sanctions on China, aggressive military support of nations like Taiwan who are on the CCP’s target list, refusal to do business in Xinjiang (and China more broadly), and excluding China from any and all international organizations. Those are but a few of the more serious actions we can take, but they are unfortunately not likely at this juncture.
One action which is the lowest of low-hanging fruits and should be done as soon as possible is to boycott the Winter Olympics planned for Beijing next year. We led a massive boycott of the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, so the action is not unprecedented. In fact, if we found it intolerable that the USSR invaded Afghanistan (and it was intolerable), we must boycott the Beijing Olympics; certainly genocide is worse than an ill-conceived war. I do not hold out hope for a US boycott (I’m not very bullish on the American response to China generally in the short-term), but we can all do our own small part to stand up against this evil regime. Join me and refuse to watch the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. I love the Winter Olympics, so I would usually be watching intently, but this is far bigger than my personal interests. The Chinese government deserves zero positive attention as long as they are committing large-scale crimes against humanity. Let’s all do our part and stand up to the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party; even if our contribution is small, it is the right and moral thing to do. Leading by example is a lost art, but we should hope it is rediscovered before this time next year.