WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday, a visit that signalled her transition from democratic idol to politician.
The 71-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is barred by military constitution from heading Myanmar’s government, but she still got a leader’s welcome in Washington.
On her first visit to the United States since being elected last year, Suu Kyi will meet over three days with assorted cabinet secretaries, followed by talks with Obama and a coveted Oval Office grip-and-grin photo shoot.
The White House is keen to reinforce Suu Kyi’s primacy as the de facto head of the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Suu Kyi on Tuesday met with British Prime Minister Theresa May during her first visit to London since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader, with the thorny issue of human rights on the agenda.
The two women discussed the challenges faced by Myanmar as it transitions from military rule to democracy during Suu Kyi’s first visit outside of Asia since her party’s election victory last year.
“They agreed that to create a society that truly works for all, it would be important to see Burma (Myanmar) make further progress in the creation of jobs, in improving access to quality healthcare, and on reforming the education system,” said May’s Downing Street office.
London stands “ready to provide further assistance as Burma continues to develop,” including through £118 million (RM642 million) in support this year, it added.
In Washington, private talks between Obama and Suu Kyi are likely to focus on the nuts and bolts of governing.
After spending much of the last few decades under arrest, since her election last November she has taken the role of foreign minister and created a new position for herself as state counsellor.
As the de facto leader, she now presides over a skeletal government, an economy hollowed out by decades of kleptocratic dictatorship and a country riven with ethnic and religious violence.
The veteran campaigner must tackle all those problems while keeping an eye on still-powerful generals, lest they have second thoughts about democratic reform.
Since her election, Suu Kyi has shocked some of her more ardent Western supporters by following the junta’s lead, most notably by refusing to recognise the Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority group in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
Tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya have spent the past four years trapped in bleak displacement camps with limited access to health care and other basic services.
Privately, US officials acknowledge Suu Kyi is working with some very tough political constraints and dare not push the military, or the public, too far or too fast.
“She has to tackle problems one by one” said Ben Rhodes, a key Obama aide who has spearheaded the administration’s Myanmar policy. — AFP