Myanmar’s Lady vs. The Dragon
Speculation remains high in Myanmar as to if and when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to China, which was one of the strongest supporters of the previous military government and remains highly influential in the country’s affairs.
If Suu Kyi were to make the trip, it would be symbolic of the progress Myanmar has made in its democratization process, as well as representative of the ongoing significance of “The Lady” in local and regional politics. Last month a ten-person delegation from the National League for Democracy (NLD) returned from a trip to China that included stops in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kunming — the second such trip taken by members of the party since May. Given the changing political landscape, the visits have become Beijing’s preferred method for engaging Myanmar, beyond the high-ranking military and political officers previously utilized for that purpose.
Under the government of reformist President Thein Sein, China has come to realize that such a change is appropriate, as Myanmar opens to the West. Once little more than an afterthought, ethnic leaders, youth groups and smaller political party members have all recently been courted by China. In Myanmar, the “charm offensive” has fallen to Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan — the most visible foreign diplomat in the country, who has assumed a high profile in the media.
Suu Kyi’s decision to distance herself from China has been prudent, saving her from inevitable domestic criticism since anti-Chinese sentiment remains prevalent. The Lady has already experienced a backlash when she has appeared to be too close to Chinese interests. How she plays her China card may ultimately prove to be important in how her evolving political power unfolds.
In 2012 a violent crackdown was initiated by police on peaceful protestors at the Letpadaung Copper mine in northwestern Myanmar. The mine was at the time a joint venture between the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings and Wanabo Mining, an affiliate of China North Industries Corporation. The project was marred by accusations of land expropriation and environmental damage and was temporarily shut down.
Suu Kyi was appointed to head a parliamentary commission tasked by President Thein Sein to investigate the crackdown and whether the project should continue to operate. In March last year, the commission issued a report recommending that the government permit the mine to resume operations. The backlash was swift, in part because the entire incident was seen as a test of Myanmar’s will to stand up against China, but also because of allegations it had failed to meet requirements for transparency vis-à-vis its compliance with environmental and health standards. Anger among opponents of the mine continues to simmer, fueling the notion that Myanmar has served as a pawn for Beijing, taking a back seat to its economic interests.
So Suu Kyi has a dilemma — whether to embrace Beijing or continue to distance herself from it — and contemplating the political implications of doing either. The international community has called for amendments to be made to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution prior to the 2015 elections; in particular, section 59(f), which bars anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals from holding the position of president. Through her marriage to the late British academic Michael Aris, they had two sons, which makes her ineligible to become President under the law. Should an amendment be made, and Suu Kyi were to become president, it remains to be seen whether closer engagement with China would be the result. Many of her constituents have already lost faith in The Lady as a result of her failure to more forcefully speak out against human rights abuses occurring in Myanmar.
Regardless of who becomes president next year, the NLD is likely to remain a dominant party in parliament, making the question of when, rather than whether, Suu Kyi visits Beijing somewhat academic, given that she will remain the party leader. Establishing stronger ties now would probably be beneficial for the NLD’s post-2015 future, but could put Suu Kyi at risk of appearing too close to Beijing.
The last thing she would want is to end up being compared to the political establishment she fought so hard to unseat. Suu Kyi has learned that the seemingly limitless praise she has received in the past can no longer be taken for granted — either by her constituents or the international community. The price of becoming an international human rights icon is that there she has little room to maneuver outside of the personae she has established. The Lady is learning that with political power comes the need for compromise in order to get to the finish line. Her embrace of Beijing would, therefore, appear to be inevitable.