Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Visits the United States: What Next?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States, beginning September 16, raises a host of interesting issues for U.S. foreign policy. Three in particular are: U.S. relations with China and the other Asian countries, the role of sanctions in promoting democracy and respect for human rights, and how to use foreign aid and foreign investment to advance U.S. interests.

Over the next two weeks, Aung San Suu Kyi will be received royally in in cities across the USA, including New York, Indiana, and California. During three days in Washington, her main appearances will be at the U.S. Institute of Peace on the 18th, the Capitol Rotunda to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on the 19th, and back to the Capitol on the 20th to receive an award from the National Endowment for Democracy.

One particularly delicate aspect of her visit is its impact on an overlapping visit by President Thein Sein who is coming at the end of September to address the U.N. General Assembly. He deserves considerable credit for his bold and forward-looking leadership over the past 18 months, but nothing can be done to prevent his trip being overshadowed by Suu Kyi’s visit. One can only hope that he will be received well enough so that his remarkable collaboration with Suu Kyi will actually be strengthened.

China was Myanmar’s best friend during the 23 years of military rule following the uprising in 1988 that catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to worldwide fame as an icon of democracy. However, China seems not to have been prepared for the sharp course change since President Thein Sein took office in March 2011, and it has understandable concerns about seeing another thriving democracy on its borders. The U.S. State Department has worked hard to show that the United States wants China to continue having friendly relations with Myanmar, and now it will have to work harder to make this point. But this looks like a manageable issue. Myanmar’s other nine partners in the ASEAN community are generally pleased to see its transition to democracy, but mostly want its economy modernize rapidly.

Analysts and experts are divided over the utility of sanctions in the case of Myanmar and the implications for other governments committing gross human rights violations. Those who advocated tighter U.S. sanctions on Myanmar are convinced that these explain Myanmar’s sharp turn toward democracy. Those who supported the Obama administration’s policy of “principled engagement” (replacing the Bush administration’s hard line policy) are convinced that engagement helped or that the turn can be amply explained by internal factors unrelated to the sanctions. Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit is more likely to muddy the waters on this debate than to shed any light on it.

Responding to the favorable turn of events in Myamar last year, multilateral and bilateral donors, international NGOs and foreign investors are descending on the country in droves. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Myanmar is being smothered with love. The government is being overwhelmed with conflicting advice. Policy decisions essential to economic progress are being delayed by the chaos. Good decisions made are not being implemented effectively because of the limited capacity of the bureaucracy. It remains to be seen whether U.S. assistance will be part of the problem or part of the solution. Getting it right will not be easy because of the American tendency to “do it our way”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit, scheduled during a recess in Myanmar’s House of Representatives where she was recently seated, comes at an awkward time for the United States. Although there is deep bipartisan support for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, the visit could become politicized in the heat of our presidential election campaign. Another risk is that the adulation she will receive during her visit could make it harder for her to make the political compromises in Myanmar that will be required to keep the democratic transition on track.

Above all, Americans should listen carefully to what Aung San Suu Kyi says during her visit. Her suffering at the hands of a repressive regime has been great and her leadership of the fledgling democracy movement has been exceptional. She has ready access to leaders around the world, and she could become a force for resolving conflicts well beyond the borders of Myanmar.