US President Barack Obama will seek Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release when he meets leaders of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Singapore this weekend. In keeping with a long-standing US policy, Obama will ask that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Burma’s last general election in 1990, be freed “in the context of all political prisoners,” according to senior US official Jeffrey Bader.
“He will probably mention her by name,” said the US senior director for Asian affairs.
The Obama administration has initiated a policy of “engagement” with the ruling junta in Burma, acknowledging that the previous sanctions-only policy had failed to promote democratic reforms, but reminding that “engagement” by itself—the preferred policy of Burma’s fellow Asean member-states—had been equally unsuccessful.
However, speaking in Bangkok last week after a two-day visit to Burma, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of East Asia and Pacific Bureau Scott Marciel acknowledged that the US “still does not know why the junta wants to talk to us at this juncture.”
One the surface, there seems to be some synchronization between US and Burmese official public statements. Speaking to The Associated Press in Manila on Monday, Min Lwin, a senior Burmese diplomat, said, “There is a plan to release her [Suu Kyi] soon … so she can organize her party.”
He gave no details and it was unclear whether the NLD leader would be allowed to campaign or stand for election.
Despite the conciliatory remarks, the country’s Constitution includes provisions that bar her from holding office and ensure the primacy of the military in the Parliament. The US has said it will not push the Burmese junta to review its controversial Constitution, saying that this should be discussed as part of a “national dialogue,” which Marciel said he regards as “vital” if the 2010 election is to be credible.
At the recent Asean summit in Cha-am, Thailand, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein hinted that Suu Kyi’s house arrest could relaxed “if she showed good behavior,” according to a Japanese foreign ministry account of his briefing.
The Nobel laureate has spent more than 14 of the last 20 years in detention, and has been released in the past, only to be returned to incarceration. Her current 18-month term of house arrest was handed down after a trial—widely-dismissed as a politicized sham—for her role in hosting an unregistered foreign guest, American tourist John W Yettaw, at her home.
The US seems to be basing its Burma policy on its pan-Asean needs. According to Bader: “One of the frustrations that we’ve had with policy toward Burma over recent years has been that the inability to have interaction with Burma has prevented certain kinds of interaction with Asean as a whole.
“The statement we’re trying to make here is that we’re not going to let the Burmese tail wag the Asean dog,” he said. “We’re going to meet with all 10 [Asean members] and we’re not going to punish the other nine simply because Burma is in the room, but this is not a bilateral.”
Without prior “engagement” with Burma, it would be difficult for the US and Asean to stage a summit meeting. Obama has already pledged to invite Asean leaders to a return summit in Washington sometime in 2010.
The US recently signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with Asean, and with China and India pushing ahead with free trade deals with the Southeast Asian bloc, the US needs to show that it is “back” in the region, as per Secretary of State Clinton’s sound bite when she visited Thailand in July.
China is thought to be alarmed at a possible US-junta detente, but is pushing ahead with its dual pipeline project from Burma’s Arakan coast to Yunnan Province in China, which will enable Beijing to cut reliance on naval routes for its Middle East and African energy imports.
On Tuesday, China announced a pre-summit visit by President Hu Jintao to Malaysia, to ink an agreement allowing China’s ICBC—the world’s largest lender by market value—access to the newly-opened Malaysian banking sector. Previously the sector was closed to foreign investors. A US-Malaysia free trade deal remains stalled.
It seems unlikely that Obama will meet Thein Sein on the sidelines of the summit. Last week, Ambassador Marciel told reporters in Bangkok that he did not foresee any high-level meeting involving either the US president or the secretary of state with any Burmese counterpart anytime soon.
The last US president to meet a Burmese leader was Lyndon B. Johnson, who held talks with Prime Minister Ne Win in 1966Show