Has the United States Forgotten Suu Kyi?

Has the United States Forgotten Suu Kyi?

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa in Rangoon on Sunday evening. (Photo: Simon Lewis / The Irrawaddy) 

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa in Rangoon on Sunday evening. (Photo: Simon Lewis / The Irrawaddy)

Nobody seems to realize that Aung San Suu Kyi is disappointed with US policy in Burma, especially its policy of military-to-military engagement.

She hasn’t said so in public, but according to a source close to the opposition leader, she believes it is not yet time for the Obama administration to strengthen ties with Burma’s armed forces, which has committed war crimes against ethnic minorities for decades. Her opinion is shared by many leading dissidents and ethnic leaders in the country, among them prominent Shan leader Khun Htun Oo as well as Mya Aye of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

But who cares what they think? Not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom and Australia appear convinced that military engagement is crucial in this time of political reform. They have all already sent military leaders to meet with top-brass officials from the Tatmadaw, mostly to discuss professionalism and human rights. The United States, for example, says its military relations with Burma will focus on non-combat concerns, such as training for disaster assistance to ease the suffering of people, as well as education on ethics and rule of law.

When US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Rangoon earlier this month, he spoke with Suu Kyi about specific plans like these for military engagement. The source close to Suu Kyi recently confided in me that, despite the opposition leader’s general disapproval, she remained relatively quiet in regard to his proposals. She could not object because the plans for military engagement are already in motion, but at the same time, she refused to offer support.

Obviously, the Obama administration and other Western countries are eager to work with Burma’s nominally civilian government. After half a century of military dictatorship, they say they want to encourage political reforms and more equitable development for the country’s people. Suu Kyi and other dissident leaders clearly do not oppose these goals, or the diplomatic engagement that is likely necessary to achieve them. But whether the international community should go so far as to engage with Burma’s military is a major question, especially lately, when it increasingly appears that the government’s political reforms have stalled.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at kyawzwa@irrawaddy.org.

Just before Kerry’s trip to Burma, more than 70 US lawmakers urged the White House to “undertake a significant recalibration of US policy” toward President Thein Sein’s government because “conditions in Burma have taken a sharp turn for the worst.” Some members of Congress have also initiated laws to restrict further US military cooperation with Burma. Their letter to Kerry underscored the continuing military abuses against ethnic minorities, the recent jailing of journalists and the need for constitutional change.

But after the trip, Kerry spoke positively about the trajectory of reforms. “In Burma last week, I saw firsthand the initial progress the people and the government have made,” he told an audience in Hawaii at the East-West Center, a think tank. “And I’m proud of the role—and you should be, too—that the United States has played for a quarter century in encouraging that progress.”

Kerry added that Burma still had a long way to go to solve challenges such as civil war, human rights issues and constitutional change. “The United States is going to do everything we can to help the reformers in Burma, especially by supporting nationwide elections next year,” he said.

During their meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly told Kerry that Burma’s Union Election Commission lacked independence and would pose a problem for free and fair elections next year. The chairman of the election commission, Tin Aye, is a former lieutenant-general and a protégé of ex-junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, with close ties to Thein Sein as well. Critics are worried that under his guidance, the election next year will be rigged, as it was in 2010, when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide victory.

In April, Tin Aye promised that the 2015 election would be “systematically free and fair,” but he went on to say that he wanted it to be held in “disciplined democracy style.” He added, “The military MPs make up 25 percent of Parliament. To be clear, we have them because we don’t want a coup.”

In the past, when Suu Kyi said something, world leaders listened. Their policy reflected well on her words. But now, the situation is different. These days, Washington and other Western governments seem to need Thein Sein more, while Suu Kyi is becoming a mere symbol for the international community. Foreign diplomats aren’t missing meetings with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but their meetings are more and more appearing as courtesy calls.

When Kerry visited Burma, he kept Suu Kyi waiting at her Rangoon home well into the night because he was busy all day in Naypyidaw, talking with the president and other government officials. When his staff called to make the appointment with Suu Kyi, they told her that he would not be free until after 8 pm, and she turned down the meeting because the time was too late. Concerned diplomats begged her to reconsider and she did, much to their relief. It would have been problematic for Kerry to leave the country without touching base with her. He could be criticized for rolling out a one-sided engagement policy with the government.

It is important to listen to both sides. Suu Kyi and other dissidents have not forgotten that top Burmese officials are skilled manipulators, that genuine democracy is not on their agenda, and that the military here still enjoys economic and political privileges. If the United States and others in the international community do not pay attention to these warnings—if they continue to court the president and the armed forces—sooner or later they will be fooled.

10 Responses to Has the United States Forgotten Suu Kyi?

  1. Suu Kyi failed to deliver, what the West expected from her.
    The West wants Suu Kyi to be the pivot in Burma that will help contain China, but Suu Kyi is not interested in that. She just wants to be President. I remember even Senator Webb who came to Burma apparently to bail out the Inya Lake villa-intruder Yettaw, asked Suu Kyi about her views on China years ago. So there was a big misunderstanding and misjudgement on both sides. I have always pointed out here and elsewhere that Suu Kyi’s image in the West never reflected what people in Burma see in her but more importantly how Suu Kyi actually sees herself. I don’t want to be impolite today, so I won’t repeat what I have said years ago about Suu Kyi.

  2. We are just a small pawn in global power struggle. How many people are killed in our country in proxy war between China and the West? All super powers are just interested in their own profit.
    China has one hand inside our country in Wa state which can follow Crimea example. I don’t like this corrupted blood thirsty military and their cronies and on the other side there are vultures from outside world. We have to be careful or we will be next Tibet.

  3. US must make close to Burma Army which is a key point to establish democracy in Burma. Without army cooperation who can establish democracy in Burma . All most all political organization do not have unity among them selves like in those days of General Aung San who mobilize all group into one force, say Anti Fascist peoples Freedom League ( AFPFL ) which therefore can obtained Burma as an independent state from Britain. Therefore why not all political organizations keep silent and put all your strength to the strong party then talk with the government straightforwardly. By that time you will get good result from the military supported government of Thein Sein.

    At present situation Burma politics is still control by Military so naturally US must make good relation with Burmese military leaders for the sake of Burma and its peoples to get more freedom and rule of law to establish also to exist human rights in Burma.

    All of us has to support US present policy on Burma so that you will see sooner or later Suu Kyi will get a chance to become President of Burma.

    • You can hardly find a good example of countries whose military have close ties to the US that enjoy freedom and prosperity. Here are just a few. Suharto’s Indonesia, Mubarek’s Egypt, Sisi’s Egypt, Sadam’s Iraq, Newin’s Burma (that’s right. Newin had tacit support of the US until hard-to-hide massacre blew up on TV screens world wide in 1988, and they had to ditch him.) Is Burma next in line to join Uncle Sam’s Groupies? If she did, what color would be used to call the next uprising? Saffron had been used for the one in 2007. Maybe scarlet or amber or any color with a touch of blood. I mean red.

    • DASSK must make a wise strategies or decision what she should do now. DASSK needs all ethnics’ and China’s support. DASSK already has all ordinary bama support whatever it is and what reason it is because bama military thugs, particularly fox than shwe and his men are hatred by the whole country. Fox than shwe killed own people in Nargic 2008, give unfair order to kill all ethnics for the getting free-lunch from their natural resources, continue to kill local Muslim for the intention to threat the ordinary people for preparing for next military coup.
      If DASSK is not take care of the all ethnics’ right, Burma is the next Crimea for all ethnics who have a right to do so for their future. Wa state from Chinese help is the good example for all ethnics. A
      t least, disciplined Chinese soldier will not rape ethnics’ women and they will buy their natural resources. Chinese ambassador, Mr. Yang clearly reports that Chinese side has given large sum of money to fox than shwe and his men for hydropower project. Fox and U pie must come out to make clear where is the money and how to deal with Chinese projects in future. Fox should not pill the mess for DASSK or next democratically elected government.
      DASSK should ask where are those money and who get those. Chinese side wants to build infrastructures for poor ordinary Burmese in the aspect of win win situation but is rejected by tricky fox than shwe. DASSK should support those issues in the aspects of Chinese helps if sincere in the principle of win win situation.
      DASSK should meet more Chinese ambassador and support him who offers a lot (essential infrastructures) for the sake of ordinary Burmese. US and UK are now very busy with Crimea, Syria and Iraq fighting. Japan are busy with praying their late world war 2 heroes.

  4. The shortest distance between two points may not be a straight line.
    1. True US will have his own interest ,primarily geopolitics. Undoubtedly has sentiment and sympathy by some.
    2. China has interest in natural and human [ladies] resources. Sentiment and sympathy by none.
    3.Myanmar is as united as it was during the period of General Aung San. Two essential differences amongst others.
    a. Fear amongst a few for past crimes, flash backs, not easily erased by the ones who actually committed.
    b. Both green pants and longyis are our own flesh and blood. Our poor grand children who neither has food or future joined the services and has made career out of it.
    4.What we can do? what we must do?
    a. Have faith and trust in Suu Kyi. She is not God or perfect, but she is our best.
    b.Let US make alliances with our military. It will not only give immediate protection from bullies but later mold the mind of or military in the right direction.
    c.Suu Kyi has interest in Presidency only to the extent of bettering the lives of many.You cannot interest many of us in politics- time consuming, energy draining, sometimes thankless and most of the time life threatening. For the same reason we cannot recruit capable leaders in the west. You have to be poor, hungry, crazy OR compassionate to enter politics.
    5.Do not enter further and future contracts with China. Do not lose sight on the western front.They can become ISIS. Treat the muslims well who hold allegiance to Myanmar and who respect other faiths including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

  5. Tocharian always reflects pro-Chinese views. The West didn’t turn on DASSK because she ‘failed to deliver’ an anti-Chinese policy. The “West’ (meaning Western foreign policy circles), once they reversed their isolationist approach and began engaging her and others, found her to be little more than a bag of hot air. The more serious policy discussions were to be had with some in government and around government. Kerry could easily have spent hours talking with some of the people around the president, on economic as well as political issues. DASSK is big on rhetoric but almost completely empty on substance.

  6. DASSK will definitely be president of Burma in coming 2015 election (if election is fair and square) whatever it is because all ordinary Burmese are fixed in their mind permanently about the goodness of DASSK. DASSK should not worry about all internal and external influences as we are supporting you. Don’t try to clean the fox’s mess and don’t go into the trips and traps of fox’s offers. Be politician and try to gain from China support as well as ethnic support. China, US and EU will do their own strategies for their own sakes mostly. China and US should not forget that DASSK has people power and has full ability to govern Burma if there is a full military power in her hand. China is our neighbor so it is more crucial for DASSK to have a good deep relationship. Try to convince and reassure China interests in Burma.
    All ordinary Burmese hate bama military since military coup in 1962. USDP is puppet of fox than shwe. They can not win this election so they are unfairly planing to beat DASSK.

  7. Lord Palmerston states, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” It is a very bloody, true maxim.

    The US courts the Burmese generals because snatching Burma from China’s orbit is its main interests so that China cannot get easy access to the India Ocean. Also, the US wants to send its boots on the Burmese ground so as to contain the uncontrollable Dragon.

    For Burmese kleptomaniacal generals, all wealth they have stolen during over five-decades rule will become legitimate and their princelings will rule Burma until the end of the world.

    For China, it considers Burma as a client state forever. Natural gas and resources are its own cheapest supply. If possible, it wants to annex Burma into it Empire.

    Therefore, Democracy is a distant dream for downtrodden Burmese people.

    No Brainer! Even five years old can understand this political maneuver.

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