When the US President Barack Obama visited Rangoon in November, he met with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The news of their meetings was headlined and indeed hailed around the world, showing how the two leaders worked together to promote ongoing economic and democratic reforms in their country. Their central message to the American dignitary and the world at large was simple: despite their past differences and antagonism, they are now diligently working together to move Burma forward. They have a common objective of integrating Burma into the international community and eventually overtaking the other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
At this juncture, no other country in Asean witnesses such close collaboration between the ruling party and the opposition. Normally, regional politics is filled with partisanship characterized by confrontation and competition for power and control. In November, during his stopover in Thailand, Obama did not bother to meet the Thai opposition leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister who met him several times during his premiership from 2010-11. Nor did he make any attempt to see representatives of the Cambodian opposition during his two-day stopover in Phnom Penh to attend the Asean-US summit and the East Asia Summit. Obama did not want to antagonize his hosts. Except for the Philippines and Indonesia, Asean countries are not very tolerant of opposition parties. They often perceive them as troublemakers trying to undermine policies and programs initiated by the ruling government.
Burma, then, is a special case. Both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are considered indispensable members of the country’s reconciliation and reconstruction Dream Team. They understand the old adage, “together we stand, divided we fall.” Wherever Suu Kyi goes, she has been given state-level receptions. In return, Thein Sein’s status has also been elevated. Singapore’s The Straits Times recently named him person of the year. When Suu Kyi attended the World Economic Forum in Bangkok in early May following her landslide victory in April 1 by-elections, the Thai government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra went out of its way to welcome her and facilitate visits to various Burmese communities near Bangkok and on the Thai-Burmese border. Suu Kyi even told her compatriots to pay attention to developments in Thailand, especially changes of rules and regulations that would affect their livelihood. Such a scene would not have been possible anywhere else.
One could easily recall the controversial visit by former US Vice President Al Gore to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, where he called on the host country to respect democracy and human rights. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was outraged and accused the US of interference in domestic politics. His remark soured Malaysia-US relations for a long time. A few weeks ago, during his trip to Malaysia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cried foul to his Malaysian colleague Najib Tun Razak over the controversial remark made by a former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin that then Indonesia President B.J. Habibie was a traitor to allow East Timor to secede in 1999.
Naypyidaw was wise enough not to bring up the irregular protocols related to Suu Kyi’s oversea trips. Obviously, similar diplomatic gestures within Asean, especially when granted to opposition leaders, would not be tolerated. The government under former PM Abhisit criticized Laos, Brunei and Cambodia for meddling in Thailand’s domestic politics by welcoming the fugitive Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra in their countries. So, whenever Thein Sein and Suu Kyi stand side by side, they boost the confidence of their own people as well as the international community.
Nobody knows how long the Dream Team will last, especially amid domestic and foreign dynamics. Ahead of assuming the Asean chair in 2014, Burma will be the main focus of the grouping’s community building and integration. In addition, as the planned 2015 general election draws near, political players, including those from ethnic minorities, have strengthened their platforms. For the time being, Burma can enjoy this unique condition and continue to attract broad support, foreign investment and assistance, to the envy of neighboring countries.