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Asean Affairs   20 September 2012 

Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein Visit the United States

By Kathleen Rustici

Two of the most prominent figures in Myanmar’s current transformation are visiting the United States this month. On September 16, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi began a 17-day visit to Washington, New York, Kentucky, and the West Coast. President Thein Sein will arrive in New York on September 25 for the UN General Assembly.

The two personify Myanmar’s reform efforts. Thein Sein is widely regarded as the driving force behind the recent reforms, which kicked off when he came to power in late 2010. He spearheaded efforts to reform the economy, open up political space across Myanmar, and renew relations with the international community.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been the figurehead of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement for more than two decades and is the current head of the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s most prominent opposition party. For both leaders, the visit to the United States is a symbolic milestone. It is Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip to the United States since she was placed under house arrest in 1990, and it is the first for President Thein Sein during which he will not be restricted to the UN complex.

Q1: Why are they coming to the United States?
A1: President Thein Sein is coming to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly. He will address the United Nations on September 27. Last month, President Barack Obama ordered an exemption for Thein Sein to the travel restrictions placed on former leaders of Myanmar’s military regime under U.S. sanctions. Those restrictions would have prevented him from traveling beyond the narrow domain of the United Nations. Despite this ability to travel freely, Thein Sein’s schedule so far suggests that he will stay in New York for his three-day visit. A former general, Thein Sein previously traveled to New York to address the United Nations in 2009 while serving as prime minister under the military regime.

Aung San Suu Kyi is traveling to the United States to meet with government officials and various think tanks and advocacy organizations. She began her first official day in Washington, D.C., on September 18 with a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She will appear before Congress on September 19 to receive its highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. Aung San Suu Kyi has also been invited to the White House and will meet with UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon on September 25.

Q2: How will the United States handle the simultaneous high-profile visits?

A2: The U.S. government and President Obama must be careful to balance the attention accorded to Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. Thein Sein will not travel outside of New York, though it is possible Obama could meet with him there. Aung San Suu Kyi will attend a myriad of events and receive numerous honors. Many of these honors were awarded during Aung San Suu Kyi’s two decades of house arrest, and she is only now able to claim them. First Lady Michelle Obama invited Aung San Suu Kyi to the White House, and President Obama will make an appearance during their meeting on September 19.

While Aung San Suu Kyi will inevitably receive the lion’s share of media attention, it is vital for President Obama, at least, to treat both individuals equally.

Failing to acknowledge Thein Sein’s central role in pushing reforms would at best slight Myanmar’s head of state and at worst damage the delicate process of rapprochement between the two countries. Earlier this year, confusion and lack of communication between Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein during overlapping planned visits to Bangkok resulted in the president postponing his travel and demonstrated the precarious balance required between Myanmar’s two leading figures.

Q3: What do the visits mean for the normalization of relations between Myanmar and the United States?

A3: The visits are a landmark moment for both countries and will encourage forward momentum in normalizing relations. On September 14, the United States and the European Union announced intentions to lift some import sanctions, which are a major barrier to Myanmar’s economic growth. Aung San Suu Kyi, to whom many U.S. officials look for guidance on Myanmar policy, lent her weight to these intentions on September 18, saying that she supports more economic engagement between the United States and Myanmar. The U.S. House of Representatives also plans to take up a bill that would lift the requirement for the United States to block assistance to Myanmar from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In another positive turn, on September 17, President Thein Sein announced the release of 514 prisoners, roughly 100 of whom appear to be political prisoners. This may be in response to the statements made regarding the lifting of sanctions, or it could be a gesture meant to persuade President Obama to meet with Thein Sein in New York. Regardless, a successful visit by both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein would be a boon to relations and complete another major step on the road to deeper engagement between the United States and Myanmar.

Kathleen Rustici is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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