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Suu Kyi’s U.S. Visit: Overshadowing the Real Powers in Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 24, 2012

U.S. president Obama speaks with Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi during their meeting in the White House. U.S. president Obama speaks with Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi during their meeting in the White House (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s two-week visit to the United States has thus far proven highly successful, at least on the terms understood in advance. As she did in Europe, Suu Kyi has wowed audiences in the United States, on a level that can be compared to no one other than the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela for the awe that people feel in meeting her. She has received award after award, and graciously sat for more policy meetings, roundtables, events, and conferences than any Washington official would ever want to endure while jetlagged.

Without a doubt, Suu Kyi’s relationship with the United States, as well as with other democratic powers, is important for Myanmar’s future, and critical to increased aid flows to the country. Yet much of the discussion at policy seminars and other events with Suu Kyi has seemed to focus on the idea that the U.S. and Europe are the critical players in Myanmar’s future. In part, this is due to the admiration for Suu Kyi in the West, and the low profile of President Thein Sein in the West —his United Nations General Assembly appearance has received far less coverage than Suu Kyi’s bravura tour, and yet Thein Sein, despite his military past, has been the key to implementing the radical reforms over the past two years. Thein Sein also is primarily responsible for the recent cabinet reshuffle that further consolidated the control of reformers in the government, marginalizing or simply canning several important hard-liners.

What’s more, the discussions in the United States with Suu Kyi have also tended to avoid another fact: the most important players in any future democratic Myanmar are China, India, Thailand, and Singapore. That truth is not going to change, and in fact, as Myanmar opens up, it will become even more closely integrated with its near neighbors. And yet the relationship between Suu Kyi (and the broader Myanmar democracy movement) and nearly all of these near powers is tenuous and sometimes downright poor. Even with India, the democracy movement’s relationship has gone downhill in recent years, after India reversed decades of pro-democracy support regarding Myanmar and pursued a more realist policy, accommodating the past ruling junta. If Suu Kyi and the democracy movement really are going to win national elections in 2015 (which, if they are free and fair, is almost sure), they must rapidly repair their relations with these critical neighbors, rather than focusing on the West, which is where most Burmese democracy advocates have become most comfortable over the past two decades.

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  • Posted by yangontar

    They must repair, how arrogant is this? Who are they? NLD and DASSK? Well for your information, you are dead wrong. When DASSK was under house arrest and NLD were almost wipe out, where were the leader of neighbors? Too busy cow-towing the military generals for lucrative business deals and was afraid/never attempt to engage the DASSK/democracy activists.

    In 2015, DASSK and NLD would be in power as you wrote. We have long memory about who were/are our friends and who were/are not.

    BTW, we have everything from natural resources and human resources that the neighbors wanted and there is nothing we needed from the neighbors cause we can buy better quality products from our friends and supporters from the West/EU.

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