Burma, once isolated regionally and globally, is rapidly opening up with ongoing political reforms. Foreign affairs representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in particular are now anticipating a relationship with a new Burmese counterpart. Yet she is no stranger to them: the foreign minister is also the country’s charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
We will soon see Suu Kyi travelling within Asia and beyond to attend international summits and to represent Burma’s National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government abroad.
As Foreign Affairs Minister, the Lady will outline the country’s foreign policy. A major shift is not expected—insiders predict that Burma will keep its current “independent” and “active” approach to international relations, but there is a hope that Burma will become a more dynamic regional player.
It was not surprising that Suu Kyi’s first diplomatic meeting as foreign minister was with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on April 4. She denied discussing the construction of Kachin State’s multimillion dollar, Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam, which is currently suspended. It is expected to be a key and recurring issue in Sino-Burmese relations in the coming months, as investors and environmental activists alike wait for the Lady and her government to take a public position on the hydropower project, which would generate electricity for China.
For these first talks, Wang Yi was openly invited to Naypyidaw—reportedly at Suu Kyi’s request; past meetings between China and the NLD chairwoman were often held under more secretive circumstances. Since 2012, Suu Kyi has felt able to travel outside of Burma; previously, she refrained from leaving the country lest she not be permitted to return.In the past four years, she has visited Thailand and Singapore, and has been to the White House as President Obama’s guest. She also flew to Europe where she met various national leaders. Aside from visiting Japan on the invitation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, Suu Kyi also flew to Beijing where she was welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015. She is no doubt an international figurehead.
A modern history of Burma within Southeast Asian regional relations arguably began in 1997, when the country first became an Asean member. The grouping had then exercised a “constructive engagement” policy with the country’s military regime—a move that was met with widespread international condemnation.
In the same year, Suu Kyi held her first meeting with the Philippines’ then-foreign minister, Domingo Siazon, at her residence in Rangoon. She also met with Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi the following year.
Asean leaders were largely silent regarding Suu Kyi’s total of 15 years of house arrest between 1989 and 2010, but spoke out in May 2003 when regime-sponsored thugs viciously attacked her convoys in central Burma. In the first joint communiqué issued by the Asean foreign ministers, Burma’s military rulers were asked to lift restrictions on Suu Kyi. It was perhaps a sign of Asean’s growing discomfort in defending Burma’s generals.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister, who had once strongly supported Burma’s admission to the Asean, began suggesting in 2003 that Burma be expelled from the group over the Suu Kyi’s continued detention. Subsequently, leaders in Singapore and Indonesia joined efforts to pressure the regime to take steps toward meaningful political change.
The bloc later rallied to openly condemn the regime’s bloody crackdown on Buddhist monks in 2007.
Only in 2014, after 17 years of membership, was Burma permitted to host its first Asean regional meeting, and subsequently, its annual summit, where government leaders from China, India, Russia and the US attended talks held under former President Thein Sein’s administration.
Today, Suu Kyi’s diplomatic knowledge and skills will be tested by the complexity of both internal issues back home and current Southeast Asian politics. The continued mistreatment of marginalized minorities such as Arakan State’s Rohingya—referred to locally as ‘Bengali,’ a name which they reject—will be a thorny issue of discussion. Malaysia and Indonesia will no doubt continue to express concern about this, as many Rohingya have arrived on their shores after fleeing Burma.
Suu Kyi will have to confront some other uncomfortable questions from the media and her international counterparts on displacement and conflict. Over 100,000 refugees from Burma continue to live along the Thai-Burmese border, and several ethnic armed groups also maintain bases in this area. Millions of migrants have left Burma for Thailand or Malaysia—what will be Suu Kyi’s message to them and to their host countries?
China’s assertive role in the region, the territorial conflict in the South China Sea, and the genuine economic integration that still eludes the Asean bloc are also issues with which Suu Kyi will be expected to engage. There are worrying signs of rising tension and rivalry between China and the US in Asia. Beijing’s political clout in the region and its strategy of courting individual Asean members sets off alarm bells.
Suu Kyi is taking on a leadership role within a context where the Southeast Asian bloc to which Burma belongs is losing its steam, its unity and its prominence. Communist governments still rule Laos and Vietnam. Strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 31-year-government in Cambodia is marked by continued violence and corruption. Malaysia is undergoing distressing political regression and Thailand is rife with political uncertainty. Only Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei appear stable.
How will the Lady respond to this lack of regional cohesion?
Leaders will expect Suu Kyi’s insights to be different from those of her military-backed predecessors, who frequently evaded or brushed aside inquiries about sensitive topics. Unresolved questions with regional repercussions will undoubtedly test the veteran activist-turned-foreign minister.
In May, President Htin Kyaw is attending the Asean-Russia Summit in Sochi, Russia, and media reports suggest that Suu Kyi is likely to accompany him. What message she will carry and how she will interact with other diplomats will be interesting to watch, and to assess.