On Suu Kyi’s itinerary

Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, China.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, China.  

Myanmar has been following a pragmatic foreign policy since the NLD came to power, and Aung San Suu Kyi took charge as Foreign Minister.

The National League for Democracy government in Myanmar, which has been in office for less than half a year, has carefully charted out a balanced and astute foreign policy under the Foreign Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi. As Ms. Suu Kyi prepares for yet another important visit overseas, to the U.S. mid-September, this is an appropriate time to assess the country’s external concerns and priorities.

Foreign policy vision

When Myanmar’s previous president, Thein Sein, assumed charge in 2011, he presented a broad vision, including in foreign policy, before Parliament. In contrast, > U Htin Kyaw, the new President, delivered the shortest possible speech in March 2016. On all substantial matters, the nation and the international community look to Ms. Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the government, to articulate Myanmar’s goals and plans.

Shortly after assuming office, Ms. Suu Kyi met foreign ambassadors in Naypyidaw and informed them that the new government’s aim was to foster “better relations not just with neighbours and ourselves but between us and the rest of the world and between all other countries as well.” Diplomacy teaches leaders how to accommodate other people’s problems. “A foreign policy that is based on getting our own way is not much of a foreign policy,” she said, indicating that her Myanmar would follow a pragmatic foreign policy, imbued with an enlightened vision of her nation’s place in the region.

> Even as Beijing unleashed a charm offensive, Myanmar took its time to respond to its overtures. It first focussed attention on re-building ties with two of its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbours: Laos and Thailand. In early May, Mr. Htin Kyaw and Ms. Suu Kyi travelled together to Vientiane. They discussed new measures with the Laotian leaders on expanding relations in trade, investment, and tourism, and agreed on the resumption of direct flights between the two countries. Shortly thereafter, the President travelled to Moscow to participate in the Russia-ASEAN summit. There it was noted that bilateral relations between Russia and Myanmar were stable, but would be further strengthened in the political, economic, and cultural spheres.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand drew much attention. There are millions of Burmese migrant workers in that country and discussing their rights was on her agenda. In early June, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Myanmar to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Visits to China and India

When Ms. Suu Kyi went to China in August, she was virtually treated as the prime minister. The Chinese promised her constructive assistance in securing her top priority: the resolution of age-old armed conflicts. But it is noteworthy that despite China’s assurance, three armed ethnic groups, which are supposedly under Chinese influence, did not attend the Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyidaw. Beijing pushed for resuming construction of the Myitsone dam, which had been suspended by Mr. Thein Sein in 2011. While Ms. Suu Kyi welcomed the One Belt, One Road initiative, she indicated that the Myanmar government had to await the report of an investigation commission it had just set up regarding movement on the Myitsone dam. Whether a deal materialises soon or not remains to be seen.

The Myanmar delegation to India was led by Mr. Htin Kyaw. Some Indians criticised the government for scheduling a visit to China before India, but the decision was calibrated. The President made a positive impression on the Indian leadership. A substantive joint statement emerged that underlined a shared plan to increase political, security and economic cooperation, and to complete two flagship projects: the Trilateral Highway and Kaladan project. President Pranab Mukherjee observed that the visit opened “a new and vibrant chapter in our bilateral relations.”

Ms. Suu Kyi’s visit to the U.S. will see her debut at the UN. She will visit Washington, DC on September 14 and 15 on President Obama’s invitation, a move set to strengthen her position internationally. A critical issue would be the lifting of more sanctions on Myanmar. She may indicate whether she wants to accommodate the Myanmar military more than she has done so far.

In October, Ms. Suu Kyi will visit India to participate in the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit. This will be her first interaction with the leaders of Russia, South Africa, and Brazil. Her meeting with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, promises to be interesting given the complex Rohingya issue. Bangladesh is the only neighbour that Myanmar leaders are yet to visit.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, a former ambassador to Myanmar, and the author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours’.

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 5:48:19 AM |

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