News analysis

Suu Kyi a potent Asean figure if her govt does well

With her stature, Myanmar leader can bring attention to human rights, good governance

A stampede almost occurred last Thursday after Thai authorities refused to let non-approved migrant workers into the compound of a Samut Sakhon seafood market to meet visiting de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

It contrasted sharply with the situation four years ago, when the then opposition leader shook hands with exuberant countrymen up close.

Ms Suu Kyi's second visit to Thailand underscored the vast difference between her old role as an opposition figure and her current one as Myanmar's most eminent person in government.

There are higher stakes and larger considerations involved now. And less room for personal freedom, as she indicated to a roomful of about 300 university students gathered at Thailand's foreign ministry last Friday.

That town hall, like many other parts of her trip, was off-limits to the press. Even the students were told to turn off their mobile phones or any recording devices, one participant told The Sunday Times.

Ms Suu Kyi (second from left) and the Thai Prime Minister's wife Naraporn Chan-o-cha (above) looking at traditional crafts during their visit to a learning centre in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, yesterday. Ms Suu Kyi is on an official visit to the country. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Media access was bare, to avoid troublesome topics that might put her or Thai Premier and junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha in a spot.

And there were many such potential landmines, like the incongruity of having a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, democracy icon and long-time political prisoner of a military regime talking shop with a former general and coup-maker who wields absolute power through a special constitutional clause.

Then there are questions about Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Myanmar, and how Ms Suu Kyi's administration will start fixing what a recent United Nations report calls "systemic discrimination" against the Rohingya Muslims.

Meanwhile, she is trying to hammer out some terms of lasting peace with Myanmar's ethnic armed groups, without which some 100,000 displaced people holed up in Thai border camps cannot return home.

The resolution will take time, the 71-year-old leader told students last Friday. It may not even arrive during her term in office.

Ms Suu Kyi has only just assumed the reins of one of Asean's poorest economies, while bearing the weight of expectations from being arguably the biggest celebrity among Asean leaders.

Although reportedly displeased with Asean's tepid support for Myanmar's democracy movement in the past, she used the podium last Friday to call for unity in the 10-nation bloc.

"If Asean does not stand together, it's not just our region that will suffer, it's the whole world," she said.

In a region where governments run the gamut from dictatorships to democracies, observers say she can play an important role bringing attention to human rights and good governance.

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa told The Sunday Times: "If she can help consolidate democracy in Myanmar… she will become a more important and powerful symbol within Asean."

After all, he said, "we cannot speak with conviction, with authority on a regional level, if on the national level we seem to have too many shortcomings".

The road ahead may be long yet. While Ms Suu Kyi is a global figure, her international stature will translate into something significant on the Asean stage only when she makes progress against some of Myanmar's most pressing problems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi a potent Asean figure if her govt does well'. Print Edition | Subscribe