For Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who effectively dictated U.S. policy in Myanmar for a generation while under arrest at her lakeside house, the transition from iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner to politician has been tumultuous. And it hasn’t been an entirely happy experience for the Obama administration, which has hitched a fair piece of its East Asia policy to Suu Kyi, or for Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state prided herself on leading the opening to Myanmar with an open embrace of Suu Kyi. But as an increasingly compromised—and somewhat less lovable—Suu Kyi finds herself on the precipice of some actual political power this week, the administration is willing to cut “The Lady” some slack.
A lot of slack, most likely.
Since she was freed from house arrest by Myanmar’s autocrats, Suu Kyi’s descent from adored symbol of freedom to oft-criticized political pragmatist has been steady. Her refusal to stand up for the rights of minority Muslims amid a government-sanctioned wave of persecution has sullied her pristine global reputation over the past few years. Her attempts to get the Myanmar military to amend the constitution and let her run for president have gone nowhere, and strained her ties with Washington. And her remote, sometimes autocratic style has kept the next generation of opposition leaders from emerging, angering allies ahead of the Nov. 8 national election, the first since the end of military rule in 2011.
Now, because of remaining rules imposed by the former junta, Suu Kyi is prohibited from becoming president even if her party wins a majority at the polls on Sunday. But she’s also unwilling to pick a second-in-command, insisting recently that she still intends to lead the country no matter what. Just how that will work remains unclear – particularly after her key ally in the ruling party, Shwe Mann, was ousted from his role of party chairman in an internal mini-coup last summer. Indeed, after four years of reforms, the military isn’t showing much appetite for ceding more power.
Asked about these issues, Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told POLITICO in an interview that the administration expects the military, the ruling party and Suu Kyi to work out a deal and make some changes.
“After the election there has to be an accommodation,” Rhodes says. And if there isn’t? “We’d have to re-evaluate our approach,” Rhodes said. “I think we have significant strategic and economic interests in having a relationship with Burma on one hand – but on the other hand we have had a policy of many years that was very anchored in democracy and the human rights situation in the country.”
The military remains the most important element in the U.S. détente with Myanmar; after all, the generals still hold most of the power and the ability to determine what happens next. But if the election goes relatively smoothly, Suu Kyi’s influence is about to grow – and the longstanding ties that made her a favorite on Capitol Hill may be tested.
Suu Kyi remains the pick of the people (the large, ethnically Burman Buddhist majority, at least), meaning that voters in Myanmar are likely to deliver her National League for Democracy a strong minority – or even a majority—when they go to the polls. “She’s not trying to pretend she’s not a politician,” says Rhodes .
Rhodes, Obama’s point man on Myanmar, spoke with POLITICO in late October, fresh off his fourth trip to the country since he helped engineer the U.S.-Myanmar thaw in 2011. “I still think it’s better for democracy in Burma that she is who she is and occupies the position that she does than if they did not have that.”
Rhodes said that while the administration would “absolutely” welcome more help from Suu Kyi in getting the government to protect the Rohingya against violence, he thinks too much is often asked of her. “She can’t fix that problem in her current position,” he said.
In other words, while the U.S. won’t take a position on the election, it’s sticking with Suu Kyi no matter how much the reality fails to live up to the hype, and gambling that the payoff will be worth the price. It’s something of a broader metaphor for the tricky line the Obama administration has walked in its four-year-old effort to bring Myanmar out of the cold and into the international fold while reassuring Congress that it’s not selling out democracy activists and ethnic minorities.
The Nov. 8 elections– and the months of political maneuvering and wrangling that follow them – will be the biggest test yet of that strategy. That’s because on its face, the election will be neither free nor fair: Under the military-written constitution that the government refuses to amend, Suu Kyi cannot be president because her late husband was British and her two sons are foreign citizens, and the military retains a guaranteed 25 percent of parliament.
Instead, after pointing to Myanmar as a success story early on, the administration has been slowly, subtly lowering expectations about the election and pointing out how far the country has come from four years ago. It’s also warning that trade benefits and further economic and military ties could be endangered. “There are clearly going to be very strict limits on our engagement with the country absent continued progress,” says Rhodes.
The reality, however, is that nobody’s talking about pulling out of Myanmar, no matter what Suu Kyi or the generals do, as the U.S. government once did, shunning Myanmar diplomatically for the better part of two decades after a military crackdown in 1990.
The reason that won’t happen again is that Myanmar, with or without Suu Kyi in power, is a key building block in the administration’s “pivot” toward a stronger U.S. role in Easat Asia. China’s expansion means that the U.S. can’t afford to not be in the Myanmar – and despite the urgings of human rights groups, it’s unlikely that sanctions will be re-imposed any time soon.
The fact that Suu Kyi can’t be president – and the military’s continued stake in parliament – means the “the credibility of this election is to some extent compromised,” Rhodes acknowledged. He said that a relatively transparent vote-counting process and access for international monitors could assuage those concerns. “We don’t expect this place to be perfect. But the question is: is it moving in the right direction?” (Politico.com)