Suu Kyi’s U.S. Visit: Overshadowing the Real Powers in Burma

Burma’s neighbors and present leadership will have a strong say concerning its future course.

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s two-week visit to the United States has thus far proven highly successful, at least on the terms understood in advance. As she did in Europe, Suu Kyi has wowed audiences in the United States, on a level that can be compared to no one other than the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela for the awe that people feel in meeting her. She has received award after award, and graciously sat for more policy meetings, roundtables, events, and conferences than any Washington official would ever want to endure while jetlagged.

Without a doubt, Suu Kyi’s relationship with the United States, as well as with other democratic powers, is important for Burma’s future, and critical to increased aid flows to the country. Yet much of the discussion at policy seminars and other events with Suu Kyi has seemed to focus on the idea that the U.S. and Europe are the critical players in Burma’s future. In part, this is due to the admiration for Suu Kyi in the West, and the low profile of President Thein Sein in the West — his United Nations General Assembly appearance has received far less coverage than Suu Kyi’s bravura tour, and yet Thein Sein, despite his military past, has been the key to implementing the radical reforms over the past two years. Thein Sein is also primarily responsible for the recent cabinet reshuffle that further consolidated the control of reformers in the government, marginalizing or simply canning several important hardliners.

What’s more, the discussions in the United States with Suu Kyi have also tended to avoid another fact: the most important players in any future democratic Burma are China, India, Thailand, and Singapore. That truth is not going to change, and in fact, as Burma opens up, it will become even more closely integrated with its near neighbors. And yet the relationship between Suu Kyi (and the broader Burma democracy movement) and nearly all of these near powers is tenuous and sometimes downright poor. Even with India, the democracy movement’s relationship has gone downhill in recent years, after India reversed decades of pro-democracy support regarding Burma and pursued a more realist policy, accommodating the ruling junta. If Suu Kyi and the democracy movement really are going to win national elections in 2015 (which, if they are free and fair, is almost certain), they must rapidly repair their relations with these critical neighbors, rather than focusing on the West, which is where most Burmese democracy advocates have become most comfortable over the past two decades.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick.