‘Burma is Already a Game-Changer for Asean’: Kavi Chongkittavorn

By Aung Zaw 15 August 2016

A new sense of pragmatism from on all sides bodes well for the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi—Burma’s state counselor and foreign affairs minister—to China later this week, says Bangkok-based expert on Asean affairs Kavi Chongkittavorn, in a conversation with The Irrawaddy’s founding editor Aung Zaw.

Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting China again. This time she will visit Beijing as the de facto leader of the new NLD government. What can we expect from it?

It will be the most important foreign visit of her government, which will directly impact the future of Myanmar, especially with regards to the peace process and economic development.

Suu Kyi knows how to engage China in ways that would not undermine her longstanding relations and personal ties with the West. It will be a win-win situation for her as she has displayed diplomatic finesse and pragmatism with China throughout.

It seems China was unprepared for the dramatic political changes in Burma. Now, China is adjusting to the new political environment in Burma and is actively engaging with key figures including Suu Kyi and old regime leaders. How could Asean benefit from this new engagement?

Political stability in Myanmar, and good relations with China, would be a big boost to Asean-China relations. With Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s relations with China would serve as a standard bearer because her government is an elected one and is widely accepted internally. This is the first time since the U Nu government [deposed by the 1962 military coup] that Myanmar and China can develop relations in good faith, with all options open. As such, future Myanmar-China relations will develop from the calculated strategic interests of both nations. That kind of realism would benefit Asean-China ties, which are on the mend.

Burmese leaders, whether civilian or military, have chosen to visit China before going to the West. Suu Kyi does the same. Is it a smart move?

Suu Kyi’s visit to China is a smart move. No other major power has such a direct impact on her country. Issues related to border trade, security and people-to-people interaction are dependent on good relations. Most importantly, Suu Kyi has given special attention to Xi Jingping’s leadership.

The motive is simple—to rein in regional authorities, which have a great deal of influence in policy directions and implementation.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government and Aung San Suu Kyi have begun to engage Asean. As Burma’s foreign minister, her first trip was to Laos, which is soon playing host to an Asean Summit. Her second official visit was to Thailand. Her visits to both countries were well received and showcased her diplomatic skills. But you have written “dos and don’ts” for Suu Kyi prior to her visit. Do you have doubts about her?

Suu Kyi has displayed her diplomatic skills during her trips to Asean capitals. She knows how to carry herself well—she was humble and assumed a low profile in all Asean meetings. She spoke little, and only on important issues, such as respect for human rights, democracy and international rule of law. She learned fast and was adaptive to the Asean environment. During discussions, her English was polished and her points well argued.

Many in the region have praised the speed of political change in Burma. But some countries in the region are making U-turns, and one can also see a decline in Asean’s influence. At the same time, one sees powerful countries including the US, China and Japan exercising influence in the region. What role will Burma play in the future?

Myanmar is already a game changer for ASEAN, with its ongoing political and economic transformation. No other Asean country has undertaken such radical steps to open up. Politically, Myanmar ranks high in Asean as a democracy with a brand-name leader. Her moral authority ranks as the highest in Asean, despite some criticism of her engagement in the communal conflict in Rakhine State.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.