The world’s bad guys are winning. Is anyone going to stand up to them? | Simon Tisdall

From the coup in Myanmar to the autocratic regimes in China and Russia, western values are under increasing threat

Blame Joe Biden for not stepping in more quickly, or Donald Trump for encouraging authoritarian rulers. Blame Barack Obama for lifting sanctions. Easier still, blame China for propping up a military junta and putting profit before people.

The International Court of Justice warned of ongoing genocide, but nobody was saved. UN security council members argued endlessly about what to do. The finger of blame also points at Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel heroine turned sellout.

Yet while recriminations over last week’s coup in Myanmar may be inevitable, they are beside the point. The issue now is what is the international community going to do about it? The quick answer, based on recent precedents, is not a lot.

This dilemma not only applies to Myanmar. Across the world, to put it crudely, the bad guys are winning. The coup is another landmark in what David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary, calls the “age of impunity”.

It’s true the US has set an unusually bad example. In November Aung San Suu Kyi won a clear election victory. Myanmar’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, alleged fraud. Peddling a lie and ignoring the constitution, he plotted to overturn the vote by force.

Sound familiar? In Washington on Monday, Trump faces trial for a similar, albeit failed, insurrection. Yet such a reckoning is a democratic rarity. Public protests are growing in Myanmar. So is repression. Who will bring Min Aung Hlaing to justice?

It’s also true China is playing a cynical game. It denies backing the coup, which is plausible. Its huge investments require stability, not a return to pre-2011 pro-democracy agitation. Yet China will be the winner if the west reverts to punitive sanctions. This outcome would render the generals triply damned: hated at home, ostracised abroad, and more dependent than ever on Xi Jinping.

The coup is seen by some as the first big test of Biden’s commitment to global democracy. Analyst Azeem Ibrahim claims a US-China deal is possible.

“The US could recognise Beijing’s commercial interests … in exchange for China’s support for forcing Myanmar into humanely resolving the Rohingya crisis and entrenching the power of the [pro-Beijing] democratic forces in the country,” he suggested.

This scenario was optimistic, Ibrahim conceded. China pays only lip service to democracy – witness its crackdown in Hong Kong. It obstructed efforts to punish the generals for genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims in 2016-17 which killed thousands and forced three-quarters of a million to flee to Bangladesh.

Xi, too, stands accused of genocide – in Xinjiang – yet appears untouchable. Who will bring China’s bullyboy president to justice?

The same question might be asked of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. The “underpants poisoner” is impunity personified. The sheer brazenness of the bungled bid to murder opposition activist Alexei Navalny was matched by his unjust incarceration last week.

Putin has ignored resulting international uproar. He ignores nationwide street demonstrations, which have brought mass arrests. He ignores Russia’s own laws. Yet his effrontery is no surprise.

After invading Georgia in 2008 Putin realised he could get away with almost anything. The lesson was reinforced when he annexed Crimea in 2014 and intervened in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. He even tried to subvert US elections – and got a free pass from Trump.

At home, even more so, he does what he likes, however corruptly. He and his billionaire cronies shrug off western sanctions as badges of honour. Ordinary Russians suffer, but Putin? He thinks he’s immune.

Can domestic opponents and western governments do anything to shake this sickening complacency in the Navalny case? As the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko showed last autumn, modern authoritarian regimes that control the streets, the courts, the media and the narrative can survive almost indefinitely.

The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia
‘If Germany were to cancel Gazprom’s lucrative Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline, it would hurt and embarrass Putin. Yet Angela Merkel just won’t do it.’ Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Putin and his ilk bank on the absence of collective international political willpower. If Germany were to cancel Gazprom’s lucrative Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline, it would hurt and embarrass Putin. Yet Angela Merkel just won’t do it – and the EU will not insist. Principles are all very well. But money and power talk louder.

Biden’s criticisms have been brusquely rejected by Moscow. So what should he do? Speaking on Friday, he again demanded Navalny’s release and threatened to impose “costs” on Russia – but did not say how or what.

Some in the US believe Navalny, by shaming Putin, has already won a moral victory. But commentator Garry Kasparov insists there must be “real consequences”.

Biden should “rally the free world to finally stand up to Putin’s dictatorship”, starting with asset seizures of eight close associates identified by Navalny. This, Kasparov wrote, would mark the dawn of “a new order for democracy”.

Unlikely. It’s clear that, overall, Biden and the west increasingly lack leverage when faced, not by foreign governments responsive to normal pressures, but by gangster regimes protecting their selfish interests. Mobsters such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad come to mind. Who will bring them to justice?

Even where mis-governance is not endemic, there are signs of a broader deterioration. Just look at the mass killings now taking place in northern Ethiopia. They are barely reported, let alone curbed. It’s as though the world’s democracies lack sufficient bandwidth.

Impunity is spreading, non-accountability goes viral. Authoritarianism is the new normal. According to the latest Economist survey, only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a fully functioning democracy, while more than a third live under authoritarian rule – and it’s getting worse.

Even when western politicians try hard to induce dictators and coup-leaders to mend their ways, they usually end up fighting a losing battle. Today’s question is not “who lost Myanmar?” It’s “has the west lost?”


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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