Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi: A pragmatic US shift on 'the Lady'?

President Obama is in Myanmar, where US policy has long backed the democratic aspirations of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But as the state slowly opens, must the White House cool its ardor? 

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
US President Barack Obama, left, and Myanmar President Thein Sein and his wife headed toward a group photo with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw Wednesday.

As he arrives in Myanmar for the ASEAN regional summit, US President Barack Obama is confronting a brewing electoral drama – one that once involved bright White House hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and opposition politician.

During years of military rule in Myanmar, the US backed the ideals of Ms. Aung Song Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and universal moral voice who long suffered house arrest. Today, both US leaders and ordinary people on the streets want "the Lady," as she is known, to contend for the nation's top office.

Yet even as Myanmar moves away from Army rule, Aung San Suu Kyi remains constitutionally blocked from becoming president. She finds herself under heavy criticism for saying little about the mistreatment of Myanmar's ethnic Royhinga minority, who are also Muslim. And it is increasingly clear that the former generals running the quasi-civilian government fully intend to play a major role in the next government.

That has forced some pragmatic calculation on the White House, which wants to claim Myanmar as a foreign policy success. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is complaining publicly about what she calls a tilt toward the ruling party as the US appears to back off hopes for some kind of breakout story involving the Nobel Prize-winner.

Things here are changing, to be sure: Newspaper editors here have taken to running front-page photo spreads of four key political figures, all assumed to be presidential aspirants: Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, and Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Those photos are a sign of progress. Media censorship was only abolished in 2012, after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed back into the political process.

But despite some media and political reforms, Myanmar’s transition remains a work in progress. 

While ruling party lawmakers have signaled they may agree to amend the 2008 Constitution engineered by the former junta, and reduce the military’s guaranteed 25 percent share of parliament, they’re not changing a notorious clause excluding people with foreign-born spouses or children (read: Aung San Suu Kyi) from the presidency.

So while Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy could win a majority next year, at this point it cannot put her forward as president. And, simply put, her NLD party has no No. 2. 

That could leave the ruling party and the military fully in control, or leave Aung San Suu Kyi dependent on the ruling party for some kind of coalition.

That is a hard truth for Obama’s team. Aung San Suu Kyi’s views have largely driven US policy on Myanmar for the past generation, and she has been dismayed by a perceived US move toward the ruling party. Still, “the Lady" is also pragmatic; last year she angered some of her own supporters for appearing to curry favor with the military that once imprisoned her.

Meanwhile, she’s been criticized internationally for failing to speak up in the face of anti-Muslim sentiments and violence. The plight of the persecuted minority Muslim Rohingya has drawn increasing international concern, with human rights groups pressuring Obama to force the issue with the Myanmar government. Among other things, the Rohingya are denied access to government healthcare, which has led to growing fears of a humanitarian crisis in western Myanmar.

It’s making things awkward for Obama, who called Thein Sein to press for continued democratic progress in late October, ahead of his trip, prompting the Myanmar president to swiftly convene a first-ever summit of civilian and military leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Obama has shown little appetite for reimposing the harsh sanctions he’s eased since 2012, though an exception came two weeks ago when Treasury put a former industry minister on the list. And administration officials clearly want to see the election effort through before expanding or scaling back the détente – even if it means the ruling party remains in control.

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