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.
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.