Dos and don’ts for Suu Kyi on dealing with Asean: The Nation columnist

Democracy leader and newly installed Myanmar foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi meeting with diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyidaw, on April 22, 2016.
Democracy leader and newly installed Myanmar foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi meeting with diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyidaw, on April 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Myanmar's new Foreign Minister needs to know a few things about the regional grouping, with which she has had a dreadful relationship in the past.

For the first time in its history, there will be a Nobel Peace laureate and the world’s most famous political icon in the family of the Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM), which serves as the Asean annual meeting. 

Myanmar’s new Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi needs to know a few things about the organisation, with which she has had a dreadful relationship in the past.

Last Friday, she met with Asean diplomats to ensure the importance of Asean-Myanmar relations as a precursor to her numerous Asean-related meetings in the next four years. 

After all, each year, Asean holds nearly 1,000 meetings in its headquarters in Jakarta and in member capitals.

First of all, Suu Kyi must be humble. For her entire life since 1990 she has been at the centre of global attention and media headlines related to democratic development and inspiration in Myanmar and beyond. 

As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she has received worldwide recognition that no other Asean minister has ever attained.

Second, before the Asean foreign ministers meet officially, they will have met informally first, say, the night before. 

The informal meeting, which is sometimes called a retreat, is the time and place where the leaders can discuss concerns that they want to raise outside the plenary session. 

Some of these issues, if they are really serious, will already have been addressed by senior Asean officials, who normally meet before the ministers gather. 

If there are decisions and agreements informally, they could become formal positions the next day.

Third, she must understand that Asean makes decisions by consensus. Under this principle, no matter how long it takes, all policies must be agreed upon by all. 

Being her independent self, she could find this troublesome. But she must be patient. When Myanmar chaired Asean in 2014, Nay Pyi Taw did a good job in representing the group because the government needed a regional profile and thus followed the Asean spirit. 

Her government does not have the same dilemma.

Fourth, this is an extraordinary year for Asean under the Lao chairmanship as the grouping has to engage three major powers - the US, Russia and China - at the highest levels. 

Due to her numerous meetings with world leaders, her views on the international situation will be useful to Asean. It is important for her and Myanmar to coordinate with Asean views to represent the organisation as a whole.

Fifth, Suu Kyi, as a newcomer, must pay attention to other Asean colleagues. Remember, they have never experienced the kind of attraction and attention at the global level that she has enjoyed for more than two decades. 

They could feel intimidated by her august presence. 

So, she must listen carefully to their often boring speeches and converse with them, especially with other relatively new members Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. 

With Suu Kyi's liberalism and political popularity, she does not need to impress anyone. 

Sixth, Suu Kyi and her aides must read all documents related to Asean, especially past communiques and chairman's statements, to understand the essence of being in the grouping, its positions and choice of worlds. Speaking and writing are two important elements in the Asean culture of diplomacy. 

Myanmar's chair in 2014 was exemplary as it reflected a very Asean style of thinking. 

Seventh, although she is "above the president" in Myanmar, that does not mean she is above "all the Aseanministers" when she attends the AMM in July in Vientiane; there are certain protocols and procedures she has to follow. It is incumbent on her to separate her roles as foreign minister and as state counsellor in the discussions and decision-making.

Eighth, the issue of illegal migration will come up whether she likes it or not. She must be well prepared and if possible discuss the issue voluntarily at the retreat and informal meetings. 

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have already taken part in the dialogue to resolve this sensitive issue through regional efforts. 

Her predecessor, U Thein Sein, gave a green light for Myanmar to take part in an international conference to address the issue. 

If she finds it uncomfortable to discuss, she must make her position known to senior officials ahead of time, otherwise it could cause misunderstandings. 

In 2004, former Thai prime ministerThaksin Shinawatra, due to his stubbornness and poor communication, threatened to walk out of the Vientiane summit if Malaysia raised the massacre in Tak Bai, which was blamed on him.

Ninth, as the opposition leader and political icon, whenever she joins in pictures with a group of dignitaries and visitors, she must always stand close to the centre. 

In theAsean photo-op tradition, the chair is always in the middle. Whatever the line-up is, it is important to know and follow cues from the chair and other ministers to avoid awkward situations. 

With her now in the Asean family, gender equality must be high on the agenda.

Tenth, the unique Asean hand-check is very important. 

New Asean leaders often fail to practice it, which could be embarrassing in front of global TV and social media. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo was caught in this awkward position previously. So, practising the hand-shake with both hands clasped in different directions is a must. 

If she is assigned to stand at the end of the line, she does not have to extend the other hand.