September 6, 2016 7:30 pm JST

Myanmar's Suu Kyi cements role with ASEAN and US visits

GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor

VIENTIANE -- Fresh from convening a landmark peace conference with Myanmar's ethnic armed groups and military leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi signaled further consolidation of her leadership role with her arrival in Laos on Tuesday for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings.

Suu Kyi's participation in the ASEAN leaders' meetings highlights her growing range of ambitious domestic and international initiatives. Her presence as Myanmar's leader -- following earlier attendance at ASEAN ministerial events in her guise as foreign minister -- marks her highest-profile international appearance since she formed her government in April, and for the first time puts her on equal footing with regional leaders in discussions concerning the future of the ASEAN Economic Community and other pressing issues.

But the visit also underscores the seemingly ad hoc and opaque planning process behind many of her moves. The Laos trip was only publicly confirmed the night before the meetings, scheduled to run from Tuesday to Thursday. It followed a peace conference that she had described as a "top priority" of her administration, but which drew mixed reviews due to its lack of coordination and the walkout of a key ethnic armed group.

While short on explanations and notifications, Suu Kyi has continued with a packed schedule that shows formidable determination to recalibrate her country's foreign and domestic policies. Her ASEAN appearance comes just weeks after a successful trip to China and ahead of her visit to the U.S., where she will lead her country's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and meet U.S. President Barack Obama, among other prominent figures, in Washington.

She will also make a brief -- though probably unofficial -- stop in the U.K., where she lived for many years, according to insiders in her ruling National League for Democracy.

To observers, her attendance at this week's East Asia Summit -- which brings together leaders of the 10 ASEAN member states with their U.S., China, Japan, Russia, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand counterparts -- settles the question of how Suu Kyi's fledgling administration is handling the various roles of its two leaders, one official and one de facto.

Courting the world

Suu Kyi is barred from her country's presidency by the military-backed 2008 constitution, despite leading her NLD to electoral victory last November. But in her specially created post of state counselor -- equivalent to the role of prime minister in a Westminster-style democracy -- she has made it clear she is in charge on both foreign and domestic fronts. She appointed a trusted friend, Htin Kyaw, to the presidency while stating she would be "above the president." That is only now becoming starkly clear, after she initially took four ministerial portfolios in the new administration only to quickly reconfigure her responsibilities to focus on the key posts of foreign minister and state counselor.

The still-powerful military -- which maintains an iron grip on all security-related matters and controls 25% of parliamentary seats, as well as a veto over constitutional changes -- made it clear earlier it was uncomfortable with her tailor-made leadership role. Still, it has not publicly challenged her initiatives and decisions.

NLD officials and diplomats say the generals are loath to challenge such a popular leader, one who effectively controls the vast majority of parliament and its lawmakers. Votes on constitutional issues, which require a supermajority of 75%, are the exception.

Suu Kyi's extensive international engagements have also seen her tackle the fraught issue of sectarian tensions and treatment of her country's minority Muslim Rohingya population. The day before her Laos visit, she met former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who she has appointed to head a panel charged with investigating sectarian problems in Rakhine State -- scene of violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 and 2013. She has also set up other commissions, including one to review controversial hydropower projects such as China's $3.6 billion Myitsone dam in northern Kachin State -- suspended under the previous administration.

Many are still guessing about how she will handle the myriad issues of protocol and power-sharing with her largely ceremonial president, and most of all, with the military. For now, her agenda appears to be shifting to the international realm as the pace of her fledgling administration quickens after a halting start.

Some critics have accused her of focusing too much on courting international support and attention. Others, though, have praised her efforts to recalibrate Myanmar's stance -- most significantly to pursue a "nonaligned" approach, seen in her choice of China as the destination of her first official trip outside Southeast Asia, followed by the U.S. She sent President Htin Kyaw on a state visit to India and has so far ignored invitations from Japan and other major countries.

Her surprise moves to establish the Rakhine commission and appoint Annan were clearly aimed at deflecting international criticism of her earlier reluctance to reach out to Muslim communities, amid strong domestic opposition to any recognition of the Rohingya minority. The peace talks, while portrayed as a domestic initiative aimed at reaching a settlement with ethnic rebels, were also aimed at the international community on which her government is relying heavily for funding of meetings, aid programs and human resources training.

But the next big challenge for the state counselor is her U.S., visit, specifically how she will handle the issue of remaining U.S. sanctions on her country. Until now, she has tacitly supported the lingering curbs, which are aimed largely at military and business interests involving human rights and trade in products including jade.

The timing of her trip, ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, could be ideal to press Obama to support an end to sanctions, say analysts. "That is, she will shift her position only if she believes the military will not come back and that her legacy will endure," said one senior ASEAN diplomat in Vientiane. If she does press for an end to sanctions, noted one of his Western counterparts at the Vientiane gathering, it would be "the perfect opportunity for Obama to deliver a final gift in his last few months as president."

Joe Freeman in Naypyitaw contributed to this article.

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