Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Trump Should Call Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi
June 2, 2017
Trump Should Call Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi
U.S. president Donald Trump should call Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi soon and invite her to visit Washington. She is the last of the leaders of larger Southeast Asian nations to whom a top official of the new administration has not yet reached out. (Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia has not had a call since Trump took office, but the two talked on the phone shortly after the new president was elected in November).
With the just-completed visit to Washington by Vietnam’s prime minister, Trump’s phone calls to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore in late April during which he invited them to the White House, and Vice President Mike Pence’s stop in Indonesia in mid-April, the lack of contact with Myanmar leaves a sizeable hole in the new administration’s outreach to Southeast Asia.
One of the reasons Trump called the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore was to urge them to cut their not-insignificant trade and exchanges with North Korea to pressure the regime to rein in its nuclear and missile programs. It might also be prudent to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi—and perhaps to military chief Min Aung Hlaing—about North Korea.
The military junta that ran Myanmar until reforms began in 2010 had a program to barter rice for military equipment with North Korea and there have long been reports of the two sides cooperating on a secret nuclear weapons program. In May 2011, the U.S. Navy intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missile technology in the Andaman Sea near Myanmar and forced the vessel to return home. Under the reform government, Myanmar officials have repeatedly said they have taken steps to extricate the military from its dealings with Pyongyang.
The U.S. government played a critical role in promoting Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party in 2015. By lifting decades-long economic sanctions and normalizing diplomatic relations, Washington made it possible for Myanmar to get out from under its near-total dependence on China for aid, trade, and investment and expand its political, economic, and military ties with the larger world.
To be sure, Myanmar’s transition has been bumpy and faces giant hurdles. Late last year, the military, which does not report to Aung San Suu Kyi, responded with harsh tactics to an October attack by Rohingya Muslims on some police outposts in Rakhine State that have prompted concerns in the United States and many western countries about atrocities and abuses.
The second peace conference called by Aung San Suu Kyi to end six decades of ethnic fighting ended on May 29 without achieving a major breakthrough between the government and the ethnic armies. Although representatives of the government and the armed ethnic groups signed an agreement on 37 out of 45 principles of federalism, the six-day summit ended with the ethnic groups insisting on greater autonomy, while government and military officials voiced concern that too much federalism could tear the country apart.
On top of that, economic reform has been slow and growth lethargic. Washington lifted its remaining sanctions against Myanmar and the businesses that long profited from ties to its military during Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington last September, but investment from U.S. and other western firms has been slow. Even though the Parliament has passed new foreign investment laws, foreign investment in the country dropped roughly 30 percent in the fiscal year that ended in April.
Although disappointing, none of these problems should be surprising following decades of military rule, sanctions, and isolation. Ending half a century of fighting with ethnic armies, promoting harmony between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims, and jumpstarting an economy suffering from a dilapidated infrastructure, weak legal system, and a government without enough knowledgeable officials cannot be achieved overnight.
The fact that the new U.S. administration has not articulated a policy toward the Asia Pacific or taken steps to reengage Myanmar has not been lost on either Myanmar or its former patrons in China. Using Myanmar’s other name, a recent editorial in The Irrawaddy observed that “amid the unpredictable challenges of this democratic transition, western influence on Burma is waning, while Beijing is becoming more assertive, reassuring the status quo in the country.”
The paper added that “the Burmese are understandably wary of their huge and important neighbor—as they should be. Many question China’s intentions in Burma, as well as its geo-political interests and economic sway.”
China has been busy trying to regain some of its pre-2011 position while the new U.S. administration has been focused on setting up shop in Washington. China hosted Myanmar’s figurehead president Htin Kyaw for a visit in April. In mid-May President Xi Jinping invited Aung San Suu Kyi on her second trip to China in a year to participate in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit. During her visit, leaders of the two countries signed five agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on cooperation under the BRI and another on establishing an “economic cooperation zone” along their border. Soon after her return, Chinese warships participated in joint exercises with Myanmar’s navy.
U.S. engagement eight years ago made it possible for Myanmar to take risks in launching reforms, moving toward democracy, and expanding ties with the outside world. This outside support made it possible for Myanmar to suspend work by a Chinese investor on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam near China’s border in response to domestic protests about the environmental damage that would be caused by the hydropower project.
But limited engagement from the United States in recent months coupled with continued criticism about how slowly Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is addressing its problems is again prompting Myanmar to look to China for support and assistance. Officials know they will get help and not face criticism from Beijing.
To encourage Myanmar in its fitful reform efforts and give the government some counterweight to renewed courtship by China, Trump needs to call Aung San Suu Kyi and invite her to the White House. He should reassure her that Washington will continue to support Myanmar despite the country’s difficult and fitful transition to democracy.
Murray Hiebert is senior adviser and deputy director of CSIS' Southeast Asia Program.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on May 23 declared a 60-day period of martial law for the entire island of Mindanao after the militant Maute group attacked Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur Province in central Mindanao. Fighting for control of the city is ongoing between the Maute group—which claims affiliation with ISIS—and the Philippine military, which has conducted airstrikes and clearing operations to break the siege. The conflict has claimed more than 100 lives.
Vietnamese prime minister visits Washington
Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 31 met with President Donald Trump to discuss trade issues, including ways to reduce Vietnam’s trade surplus with the United States. Trump and Phuc, the first Southeast Asian leader to visit Trump, also discussed tensions in the South China Sea and shared concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. In conjunction with the meeting, the U.S. Commerce Department announced U.S. companies signed 13 new deals with Vietnam worth an estimated $8 billion.
Jailed Jakarta governor withdraws appeal of blasphemy conviction
Former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on May 22 withdrew his appeal of a two-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Islam. In a letter read out by his wife, Purnama thanked supporters while adding that the appeal was dropped “for the sake of our people and the nation.” The governor’s lawyers added that the withdrawal would give prosecutors more space in their separate appeal of the sentence, which was harsher than they had requested. Three UN representatives on May 22 issued a joint statement urging the Indonesian government to release Purnama from detention and repeal the blasphemy law.
ISIS claims responsibility for Jakarta bus station bombing
Three police officers were killed on May 24 when a pair of suicide bombers struck a bus terminal in East Jakarta. The bombing, which also wounded 12, was the deadliest attack in Indonesia since January 2016. ISIS on May 25 claimed responsibility for the attack, which President Joko Widodo condemned while calling for expedited reforms to Indonesia’s anti-terrorism laws. Indonesian police have arrested seven individuals in connection with the attack.
U.S. Navy conducts first FONOP in South China Sea under Trump administration
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Dewey on May 24 carried out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, the first under the Trump administration. The destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef—one of China’s seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands—and conducted a “man overboard” drill inconsistent with innocent passage to demonstrate U.S. rejection of Chinese claims to a territorial sea around Mischief Reef. Official Chinese spokespersons voiced opposition to the operation and said two Chinese Navy frigates identified and warned the U.S. destroyer to leave the area.
Philippines rejects European development aid over conditions on human rights
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on May 18 approved a Department of Finance recommendation to reject new aid grants from the European Union (EU) that interfere with Philippine internal affairs. The grant refusal could affect nearly $280 million in EU aid, much of which goes to development projects for Muslim communities in Mindanao. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on May 20 said the Philippines will decline foreign aid that comes with conditions—particularly regarding Duterte’s drug war—but will make those decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Hun Sen reiterates threat of war if opposition wins upcoming elections
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen on May 25 repeated his threat of war if the opposition wins upcoming local elections on June 4. Hun Sen reiterated that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) must defeat the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to ensure peace, and that war will break out if the CPP loses control and the opposition targets his family. Hun Sen told the CNRP to accept the election results and said he had ordered the military to crack down on any election-related protests.
Myanmar peace conference make progress on federal agreement
Myanmar’s 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference concluded its second meeting on May 29 with an agreement on 37 of the 45 proposed principles for establishing a federal system. Disagreement remains on the issue of permitting secession from the proposed federal union and on the treatment of ethnic armed groups. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on May 27 met separately with the seven ethnic groups who have not signed the nationwide cease-fire—led by the United Wa State Army—to hear their demands.
TPP members to assess options for implementing trade deal without the United States
The 11 nations remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed on May 22 to assess options to bring the trade deal into force without the United States. The TPP members agreed on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hanoi to complete the assessment before the mid-November APEC summit in Vietnam. The group also agreed to keep open the option of the United States rejoining the deal at a later date.
Vietnam Coast Guard acquires a cutter and six U.S.-built patrol boats
The Vietnam Coast Guard on May 23 received six U.S.-built Metal Shark patrol boats in the central province of Quang Nam, where they will conduct coastal patrols and law enforcement operations against smuggling, trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing. On May 26, the Vietnam Coast Guard also received a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter in Hawaii as a transfer through the U.S. Excess Defense Articles program.
By Jonathan D. London
The visit to Washington by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (it rhymes with book) of Vietnam on May 30-31 will occur amid levels of political tumult not seen in the United States since the Nixon administration and the closing stages of the U.S. war in Vietnam... Read More>>>
Opportunities & Challenges Await Vietnam Premier on Visit to Washington
By Murray Hiebert & Nguyen Manh Hung
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be the first Southeast Asian head of government to visit the United States and meet with President Donald Trump in the White House. Phuc, who has been in his post for 13 months, will not visit the United States at the best time in U.S.-Vietnam relations... Read More>>>
Energy Security in Southeast Asia: Key Policy Issues
By Geoffrey Hartman & Jane Nakano
CSIS on April 25, 2017, held a roundtable discussing “Southeast Asia in Global Energy Markets: Trends, Challenges, and Policies.” The discussion brought together government, industry, financial, and policy experts in the first meeting in a CSIS-Pertamina Southeast Asia Energy Security Roundtable Series, jointly organized by the CSIS Southeast Asia Program and CSIS Energy and National Security Program. What follows is a summary of the key policy issues for Southeast Asia energy security raised in the discussion... Read More>>>