It may have been a coincidence or maybe not. When the 67th United Nations General Assembly session opens in New York in mid-September, the president of Burma, Thein Sein, is expected to speak in what is still called, quaintly, the “general debate.” At almost the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now the leader of the country’s democratic parliamentary opposition, will be in the midst of what is shaping up to be a triumphal tour of the United States.
Among UN officials and many others there is concern that the overlap will overshadow the tremendous strides the nominally civilian Burmese president has made in bringing the country out of decades of isolation and repression. It was Thein Sein and his still small group of reformers in the military who opened the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to travel abroad freely, while strengthening her political base at home.
The Burmese leadership is in an awkward position. Thein Sein must prove before elections in 2015 that his new brand of government is bringing rewards, or the generals in the background could shut down or roll back reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi, while cooperating with the president on numerous fronts, has nonetheless cautioned investors and aid agencies against moving too quickly into Burma, also known as Myanmar. That message plays well among those in the US Congress who want assurances that the Burmese generals will not be the people who profit from outside aid of any kind.
In June, speaking in Bangkok to a World Economic Forum event on her first trip out of Burma in more than two decades, she warned against “reckless optimism” among outsiders, given the country’s shackled judicial system, unreformed laws and poor education.
“Optimism is good but it should be cautious optimism,” she said, as reported by CNN. “I have come across reckless optimism. A little bit of healthy skepticism is in order.” Her remarks apparently caused Thein Sein to cancel his appearance at the forum, though he attended another event in Thailand soon after.
On a trip to Europe in June, Aung San Suu Kyi annoyed the Burmese government by refusing consistently to call the country Myanmar, which the military rulers adopted as the country’s name in 1989 and which is used at the UN. The US, Britain and other nations have continued to call the country Burma.
These may be two ships, however that pass in the night in New York. On Sept. 21, Aung San Suu Ky will be in the city to receive a Global Citizen award from the Atlantic Council, an organization supporting trans-Atlantic cooperation and international security. Other awardees will be Sadako Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, and the musician Quincy Jones. The speeches at the UN don’t begin until Sept. 25.
On her first trip to the US since the 1980s, Aung San Suu Kyi will also receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19. One of her hosts will be Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and a longtime critic of the Burmese government. But the Obama administration is moving ahead with improved relations with the Burmese government. An American ambassador, Derek Mitchell, arrived in Burma in July, the first diplomat of ambassadorial rank to be based there in more than two decades.
The UN and World Bank are planning programs for Burma, now that many sanctions are being ended internationally – though, in the case of the US, sanctions are being eased by executive waivers but not lifted. Washington still maintains a list of Burmese individuals with whom Americans are prohibited from doing business.
The United Nations Development Program, long blocked by US sanctions from establishing a full country program in Burma, now has the Obama administration’s go-ahead to do so. The American government, however, cannot by law vote for loans to Burma by the World Bank or other international financial institutions. But Washington is not blocking their moves to develop new policies for Burma. In mid-August, the World Bank published an outline of its transitional plans for the next 18 months, with focuses on needed institutional reform, job creation and measures to help the country become financially more transparent and law-abiding. These are all serious concerns that the Burmese president addressed in a very ambitious agenda he proposed in a speech in July. But the future of development in Burma, the World Bank notes, is remains slightly uncertain.
“The current government-led reform presents an important opportunity for Myanmar to address long-standing development challenges, and the WBG [World Bank Group] is committed to assist Myanmar in seizing this opportunity,” the bank said. “At the same time, the scale and pace of reforms also pose risks.”
Thein Sein can’t afford to be drowned out in New York. A photo with Aung San Suu Kyi in the US would go a long way.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.