Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week began yet another landmark trip abroad, this time to the US. Following close behind her, President Thein Sein will also travel to the US next week to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.
This is not the first time that their itineraries have overlapped. In May, Suu Kyi made her first trip outside of Burma in more than two decades, traveling to Thailand to speak at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok. Thein Sein was also scheduled to attend the same event, but pulled out when it became clear that his presence would be completely overshadowed by that of the Lady.
For a leader trying to stake out a position on the world stage, that was bad enough. But Thein Sein was reportedly even more upset when Suu Kyi urged other world leaders to regard Burma’s nascent reforms with “cautious optimism.” She also pointedly warned against investments that would benefit the country’s established elite, meaning cronies of the government.
When Suu Kyi later met with adoring crowds of supporters from Thailand’s vast Burmese migrant community, and paid a visit to a camp for refugees displaced by decades of ethnic conflict in Burma, Thein Sein must have felt that Suu Kyi was determined to undermine his government’s legitimacy.
Whether that was the case or not, there can be no doubt that Suu Kyi’s visit strained relations between her and the president, the two people upon whom Burma’s prospects for future progress most depend.
Naturally, some wonder if the two leaders’ visits to the US this month will have a similar chilling effect on their relationship.
The answer, fortunately, is that such an outcome is not likely this time around.
Why not? Because Suu Kyi’s interaction with the president and other members of his government has intensified in recent months, making it less likely that either side will do anything to inadvertently damage the detente between them.
Suu Kyi met with Thein Sein twice last month while she was in Naypyidaw as a sitting Member of Parliament for her National League for Democracy (NLD). In the same capacity, and as the head of a presidential committee on rule of law, Suu Kyi has also had numerous opportunities to meet with other senior government officials.
Already, Suu Kyi has made it clear that she doesn’t want to create any embarrassments for Thein Sein ahead of his trip. On the key issue of sanctions, for instance, her words no doubt were music to the president’s ears.
“I do support the easing of sanctions,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “I think that our people must start taking responsibility for their own destiny. I do not think we should depend on US sanctions to keep up the momentum of our movement for democracy.”
No sooner had she expressed this view than the Obama administration announced that it had lifted a travel ban imposed on Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann—a largely symbolic move that could soon be followed by more substantial measures, such as the removal of a ban on Burmese imports.
On another sensitive issue—the recent communal clashes in Arakan State between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims—Suu Kyi also stressed that she had no desire to make Thein Sein’s job any more difficult than it already is.
“We do not want to criticize the government just for the sake of making political capital. We want to help the government in any way possible to bring about peace and harmony in [Arakan] State. Whatever help is asked from us, we are prepared to give if it is within our ability to do so,” she said.
This may sound like a strange sentiment coming from an opposition leader—indeed, some are already saying that she has abandoned her rightful role as a critic of the government—but this ignores Burma’s unusual political circumstances.
While Suu Kyi has frequently spoken of the need for human rights and rule of law, at this particular juncture in her efforts to reshape Burma’s political culture, her first priority is national reconciliation. To achieve her longer-term goals, she must first get the military—or as much of it as possible—on board with plans to transform Burma into a democratic nation.
To date, there has been no real dialogue between the NLD and the government about the direction the country should take. Suu Kyi clearly believes, however, that she can talk to Thein Sein and some other members of the government, and that more far-reaching discussions will eventually be possible. In the meantime, she continues to try to build trust by collaborating with the government on some issues.
The trouble with this approach, of course, is that other groups—most notably, Burma’s ethnic minorities—are feeling that they have been left out of the loop. Some have understandably expressed frustration with Suu Kyi’s apparent embrace of Thein Sein’s agenda.
But this is not the time to start distrusting Suu Kyi’s intentions. While some have suggested that she has merely shifted into full politician mode, conveniently ignoring her own principles for political gain, the reality is not so simple.
By paving the way for Thein Sein to have a successful US visit, Suu Kyi is not just building trust with the government, but strengthening elements within it that are more committed to reform. She does this because she knows these reformists are both vulnerable to a military backlash, and indispensable to the ultimate goal of persuading the armed forces to return to the barracks.
And that, in the end, is the key to lasting peace in Burma.