Chinese state media plays down Myanmar coup as ‘cabinet reshuffle’ while US threatens sanctions

Chinese state media appear to be downplaying Myanmar’s military coup, with reports describing the overthrow of the democratically elected government as a “cabinet reshuffle”, as a growing divide emerged in international reaction to the events of Monday morning.

US president Joe Biden, faced with the first emergent international crisis of his fledgling presidency, threatened to impose sanctions and called upon the international community to “come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized”.

It represented a dramatic contrast to the muted statements coming from China, whose first reaction to the emerging news of the coup on Monday was to say that Beijing “noted” the developments and it “hopes that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution”.

Xinhua, the Chinese state-controlled news agency, in a news story said: “Myanmar military announced a major cabinet reshuffle hours after a state of emergency was declared on Monday.”

It quoted the Myanmar military’s statement, which said that “under the cabinet reshuffle, new union ministers were appointed for 11 ministries while 24 deputy ministers were removed from their posts.”

Tanks and other military vehicles rolled through the streets of major cities in Myanmar on 1 February, as the military took control of government and put top leaders of the ruling party – including the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi – under arrest.

Justifying its move, the army cited irregularities in November elections where the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party took just 33 seats while Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 out of the 476 available.

The Global Times, a state-run English language Chinese newspaper, said that the Myanmar military “detained elected leaders and declared a state of emergency, which is a heavy blow to the much applauded democratisation process of Myanmar and put many people in awe”.

At the same time, the newspaper was critical of the democratic model being propagated by western nations, suggesting that the events in Myanmar showed that “the prosperity brought about by political reforms alone was superficial and fragile”.

“So far, there are only a few governance models in the world, and the west is forcefully advocating its electoral system. Smaller countries do not have many options. As they walk toward modernisation, most of them have chosen the western-style electoral system,” an editorial read.

“The setbacks and bumpy roads they encountered were interpreted as their due costs for democracy. Except for following traditional systems, it is merely impossible for them to explore new political systems.”

Mr Biden’s statement followed strident responses from his new secretary of state as well as the UK, Australia, the UN and others.

Mr Biden called the coup and arrest of leaders including Ms Suu Kyi “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law”.

“In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election. For almost a decade, the people of Burma (the former name of Myanmar) have been steadily working to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power. That progress should be respected,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

Mr Biden said that the “international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians.”

He assured that the US stands with the “people of Burma in this difficult hour” while promising to support the restoration of democracy and holding accountable those responsible.

“The US removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action. The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” Mr Biden said.

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