Suu Kyi contemplating China prospect after strained relation with the west

Suu Kyi contemplating China prospect after strained relation with the west

Farah Masum,
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jun 11, 2015. Picture:AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of Myanmar’s NLD government is now facing a dilemma in her relationship with the West, which analysts point out may impact the stability of the current government. With an almost impervious agenda set in front of her by western powers, she is now leaning towards neighboring China, avoiding imminent danger to her government by trying to compromise with the military and fulfill her term in power while attempting to meet the electoral expectations of her people.

Suu Kyi had already visited China and met Chinese President Xi Jinping while recently she sent Htin Kyaw, President of Myanmar on a State visit to Beijing, with the building of a core bilateral understanding between the two countries being the primary purpose of this visit. Most of China’s strategic projects in Myanmar was in a stagnant state by the time Suu Kyi came into power. As of now China has finally reached a deal on the pivotal oil pipeline project among others. In comparison American companies are slowly rewinding their investment in Myanmar and taking a strategy to observe the situation from the sidelines. Other western allies of United States are following almost the same path. Amid all these economic and political reformation there is increasing Western pressure on Myanmar’s humanrights issue. Suu Kyi is now in a limbo where one of her options is to succumb to the pressure and risk her time in government or keep compromising with powerful forces inside of her country and try to shrug off the outside heat. Forming a UN commission to investigate the Rohingya issue which is directly probing into the accusation of the Burma Army’s ethnic cleansing and alleged crimes against humanity has already put SuuKyi’s authority in a sensitive position.

After Trump’s win, many of Suu Kyi’s personal allies in the democratic partyhas already left US administration. The Trump administration is yet to show any interest in Myanmar. With this change, there seems to be a silent modification of Suu Kyi’s strategy, as a recent interview with the Ambassador of the United Statesshowed. On the Rohingya issue US Ambassador to Burma Scot Marciel said, “We are not doing any kind of investigation to come out with independent findings – that’s not our role. The security operations have resulted in many human rights allegations. The UN has issued a very strong report. We are not in a position to confirm whether this or that specific case happened. It is very concerning to have these widespread and severe human rights allegations. It should be a concern for everybody and highlight the importance of a serious, credible investigation that is needed to get to the bottom of this.”

He also added “It highlights the need to address the underlying problem. We all know how complicated and incredibly sensitive it is. Only the Myanmar people and government can figure this out. But there is a way forward for human rights. Following the rule of law, promoting dialogue and gradually building trust between these communities as well as addressing the legal status of the Muslim population is the way forward. The fair way to do this is according to Myanmar law.”

In 2016 March Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) was handed power from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to form the government after a massive win in the election. In a televised speech, last month on the occasion of the first year anniversary of her government Suu Kyi frankly spoke about the people’s disappointment with the NLD government. In addition to the people of Myanmar, the United States and Western public opinion is increasingly becoming critical towards the regime of NLD. From the US point of view, a democratic government whichwill protect citizen’s basic right and create a unified peaceful, prosperous Myanmar- will have western support. As a result, Myanmar’s democratization process and constitutional amendments, multi-party elections, the powers delegated to the local level, the rule of law, ethnic groups, national reconciliation and similar issues are getting more important to Washington.  In fact, the NLD’s landslide victory in the 2015 election and Suu Kyi’s long-negotiated relationship with the West was contributing to high expectations of the United States about Myanmar over the last year. After Suu Kyi received the Nob el Peace prize The United States and Western public opinion dubbed her as the “Beacon of Human Rights”. Americans believed that Suu Kyi will speak on the human rights agenda will direct a forward looking government’s policy on the Rohingya issue. However much hope has died.

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In fact, Myanmar’s actual development has triggered increasing criticisms from the US and other Western countries, especially after Suu Kyi was actively involved in the country’s political arena again. The Rohingya issue was harshly denounced. The issue simmered in the 2014 nationwide census, and the Myanmar government’s attitude toward the Rohingya people has sparked widespread criticisms. Suu Kyi’s response was reprimanded as well, with The New York Times accusing Suu Kyi of silently standing by outright abuses.

Washington and Nay Pyi Taw saw a diplomatic spat on whether the term “Rohingya” should be used last year. Shortly after the NLD took office, the US embassy in Myanmar mentioned “Rohingya” in a statement, which later incited protest from the Myanmar public. Later, then US secretary of state John Kerry continued to comment on “Rohingya” during his Nay Pyi Taw visit, and, as a result, Myanmar’s foreign ministry and Suu Kyi complained about the use of the term.

The Rohingya issue and the situation in Rakhine State are jeopardizing the relationship between Suu Kyi-led NLD government and the Western public opinion. Myanmar’s army is accused by the West of sexually assaulting and slaughtering the Rohingya people. Although it was denied by the NLD government and Suu Kyi, the Western public opinion believes that Suu Kyi is dodging the issue. The US has also attached great importance to the conflicts in northern Myanmar and correlates the conflicts to the country’s democracy and human rights conditions.

In an assessment of the increasing gap between NLD and the west, China’s influential newspaper Global Times said that during the NLD’s first year in office no substantial progress has been made on the issues of Rohingya and northern Myanmar conflicts. These issues have not only put a heavy burden on the NLD government but also created divergences between the US and Suu Kyi. Apart from high expectations, the failure to understand Suu Kyi’s conundrums in handling these issues is the root cause for Western disappointment.


Given the current domestic situation, Suu Kyi still has a long way to go in addressing the above-mentioned issues. While the problems are tough to handle, Suu Kyi, as a nationalist, will not cater to the West, and thus, the tension between her and the West will continue in the future.

Needless to say, with the charges against Myanmar army of committing crimes against humanity getting exonerated for so long- if it finally gets proven from a credible source or if Suu Kyi admits about the allegations, she will not be able to retain the government. Myanmar’s main power is still largely under the control of the army while the Ministry of Home Affairs, Defense, and Frontier in their hands and 30 percent of seats in parliament under their control. In this situation, the huge foreign investment needed for the country’s economy and necessary support in case of unwanted intervention can only be provided by China. Suu Kyi is likely to be choosing this path of negotiating with China keeping this possible scenario in mind.