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Evaluating Suu Kyi’s and Thein Sein’s Trips to the United States

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 2, 2012

Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi is presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by House Speaker Boehner in Washington. Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi is presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by House Speaker Boehner in Washington (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

The past two weeks have probably been the most high-profile weeks for Myanmar in the United States since the uprisings and crackdowns in Myanmar in 1988. The much-awaited visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi drew crowds that could be compared, in some ways, only to visits of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. And Suu Kyi, in many ways, delivered, showing flexibility on sanctions that will allow for a much greater U.S. presence in Myanmar, displaying the humor and lightness of touch at events that was concealed by years of harsh government policy toward her, and offering a level of forgiveness of her former jailers that could help show the way forward for reconciliation in a future democratic Myanmar. Mynamar president Thein Sein, meanwhile, got much of what he wanted during his less acclaimed, but just as important, visit. His meeting with Hillary Clinton in New York demonstrated the importance the Obama administration places on Myanmar, the United States agreed to dramatic changes in sanctions policy, and Thein Sein returned home to Yangon to a hero’s welcome.

But both leaders’ trips have had their pluses and minuses. Here is my take:

Aung San Suu Kyi

On the plus side, Suu Kyi emerged as a more complete politician and speaker, being able to leave the confining status of icon and appear as a real, funny, and down-to-earth person. She also appeared to have a solid understanding of the ways and means of the American capitol, not an easy thing to understand for even the most grizzled Washingtonian. She was consistent in her messages of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she at least tried to move forward from her previous stance of simply ignoring the issue of violence in Rakhine State. She appeared to be gaining a better understanding of what she does and does not know about the state of international relations, and of Burmese politics, today —a critical skill for any politician. She demonstrated that she was moving beyond icon to politician, and that her visits outside Myanmar would be as much about listening as speaking.

On the minus side, Suu Kyi still has nowhere near the type of support network and brain trust that she will need if her National League for Democracy party (NLD) is indeed going to contest and probably win the 2015 elections, putting it into place to run parliament. Burmese businesspeople who spoke in advance of Suu Kyi’s trip noted that, although top NLD people have reached out to the business community and been getting a better sense of Myanmar’s economic needs, the NLD still has no coherent economic ideology, or even a real sense of how it wants to handle Myanmar’s economic opening and looming investment boom, other than calling for investment to broadly benefit all Burmese. Suu Kyi herself takes advice from both Burmese and foreign economists and businesspeople with great expertise, but she does not yet have a mastery of the many crosscurrents within the NLD, including some who want to open the doors to more investment and some who, like many Burmese, have a deal of (well-earned) skepticism and outright xenophobia about foreign aid and investment. During her trip, Suu Kyi still did not convince many foreign businesspeople, economists, or analysts that the NLD was prepared to be a governing party. That said, there are of course over two years until 2015, and this is a party made up of many people who focused their whole life on one cause: ridding the country of military rule. Can the party adapt now that its goals are far broader?

In my next blog post, I will analyze the visit of President Thein Sein.

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  • Posted by Craig Dunstable

    Suu Kyi will regard her US visit as a great success, and whatever her omissions and commissions, very few people in the US would be willing to offer any serious criticisms.

    Yet President Thein Sein in his own interviews has gently suggested that she is not right on several issues, such as her conviction that the Commander-in-Chief can declare a state of emergency whenever he wishes though the Constitution makes it clear that only the President, in consultation with the National Defence and Security Council, has the right to do so.

    Thein Sein has also set out the deleterious effects of sanctions as a result of the frustration of trade, investment and tourism over the years, to which might be added the denial of Overseas Development Aid and the blocking of all funding from international financial institutions, the prevention of IMF and ADB consultancy advice which might have helped alleviate the serious mismanagement of the economy by the generals, and more recently the emergence of serious distortions in the economy as a result of rapidly inflating property prices, the slow pace at which the easing of sanctions by the US is proceeding and such absurdities as the continuing demand for pristine US$ notes and the delay in the resumption of credit/debit card transactions.

    Suu Kyi however continues to assert blithely that international sanctions had little or no effect on the population at large and claims that IMF reports make this clear, though you will find nothing in recent IMF reports, including those given a restricted distribution only, which suggest this. Nor would the IMF wish to comment on such issues in this way.

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