The 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and related meetings begin today in Vientiane, Laos, with a host of regional leaders attending the events, including a Myanmar delegation led by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

One telling absence will be that of President U Htin Kyaw, the titular figurehead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. An officer with the Laos foreign ministry’s information department said that with the president not attending, Laotian officials had invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her capacity as state counsellor and not as foreign minister, a title she also holds.

Analysts said the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led delegation reflected the regional bloc’s recognition that she is Myanmar’s de facto leader, overcoming a constitutional ban on her assuming the presidency to represent the nation at home and abroad.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement yesterday saying Daw Aung San Suu Kyi intended to discuss implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community, its “Vision 2025” agenda and other community-building plans at this week’s summit.

“The state counsellor will be discussing the external relations of ASEAN, the common regional and international problems as well as ASEAN’s future vision during the summit period,” the statement said.

It made no specific mention of the South China Sea, where territorial disputes between China and some ASEAN member states have plagued perceptions of the regional bloc’s unity in recent years.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to inquiries from The Myanmar Times about why U Htin Kyaw is not attending this week’s gathering in Laos.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Thai analyst of ASEAN affairs, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s attendance as state counsellor was logical given her high ranking within the National League for Democracy government.

“She can do a good job as state counsellor as she knows ASEAN affairs and has learned quickly, and she has another former UN ambassador to help her at the ministerial level,” said Mr Kavi, an apparent reference to U Kyaw Tint Swe, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN from 2001 to 2010, who now serves as minister for the Office of the State Counsellor.

U Than Soe Naing, a local political analyst, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Laos was indicative of a simple reality: that she can speak with regional counterparts from a position of authority that U Htin Kyaw does not hold.

He added that in practical terms, the presence of two leaders – one effectively ceremonial, the other calling the shots – for one country might lead to confusion over protocol.

“At the previous Panglong Conference, although President U Htin Kyaw is the president of the country, he only did what he should and let Daw Aung San Suu Kyi lead all things … So I figure, this is the same conditions with ASEAN as was for Panglong,” said U Than Soe Naing, referring to a peace conference that concluded over the weekend.

The ASEAN Summit will be the highest-profile multilateral forum that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has attended since her government took power at the end of March. She will also headline the Myanmar delegation at a session of the UN General Assembly later this month, and is set to visit US President Barack Obama on a trip to Washington from September 14 to 15. Mr Obama will also be in Vientiane this week.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip abroad to a major power came last month, when she visited China and met with President Xi Jinping.

Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/22338-with-asean-summit-attendance-state-counsellor-cements-role-as-de-facto-leader.html