In the six months since Myanmar inaugurated its first civilian government in decades, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has transformed herself from a symbol of democracy to a tough pragmatist willing to bridge long-standing divides with the military to get results.

Microsoft on Sept. 20 opened its first Myanmar office in the country’s largest city of Yangon and even appointed a country manager. The U.S. technology company explained the move simply as an investment in “further growth in emerging markets.” The U.S. government had announced on Sept. 14 that it planned to lift sanctions on Myanmar.

Suu Kyi urged the international community to sanction Myanmar’s military junta after it crushed pro-democracy movements in 1988. The U.S. responded by freezing investments in Myanmar by American companies. Washington began rolling back the sanctions after the Southeast Asian nation began democratizing in 2011. But to discourage a return to military rule, it continued to ban American companies from doing business with about 100 individuals and businesses with strong ties to the former junta.

U.S. President Barack Obama plans to lift all such sanctions, except on a handful of companies involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities. More U.S. corporations could follow in Microsoft’s footsteps.

Building bridges

Suu Kyi spoke positively of the military while meeting Obama in Washington on Sept. 14. “I am, personally, very attached to our military because the army was founded by my father,” Suu Kyi said, referring to the late independence leader Gen. Aung San. “I want our military to be an honorable institution, loved and respected by the people.”

Suu Kyi’s relations with the military tensed up after her National League for Democracy won last fall’s general elections by a landslide. She sought to amend a constitutional clause which banned her from the presidency for having foreign-national sons, but the armed forces thwarted her attempt. She nominated close aide Htin Kyaw as president and made herself state counselor, a new post that effectively placed her above the president, drawing further rebuke from the military.

But Suu Kyi has since adopted a more pragmatic attitude. In her first public speech since the new government took over in March, she said she would not seek to change the constitution in a way that would cause political confusion. She invited military chief Min Aung Hlaing to her residence in July, and she stressed the need to let go of the past for the sake of progress at peace talks with armed ethnic groups in August.

The military also seems ready to compromise. Suu Kyi, not Htin Kyaw, represented Myanmar at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings in Laos in September, but military-affiliated media did not criticize her. She left Myanmar for about two weeks that month to visit the U.S. and the U.K., underscoring confidence in her government’s footing.

“The armed forces are fully aware of the importance of cooperating with Suu Kyi, who enjoys overwhelming public support,” said Yoshihiro Nakanishi, associate professor at Kyoto University. “Suu Kyi also wants to avoid clashing head-on with the military, so the two sides will probably maintain their current balance for a while.”

Human rights concerns

Some worry that Suu Kyi’s renewed affinity with the military could hinder much-anticipated progress on human rights issues. The international community has pushed Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya minority, but the idea has been shelved on opposition from the country’s Buddhist majority. The U.S. also ranked Myanmar as one of the worst human-trafficking offenders in a June report.

But Suu Kyi is keeping a distance from issues that could cause domestic strife. When addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, she merely commented on the challenges surrounding the Rohingya issue.

Compared with military-controlled Thailand and communist Vietnam, Myanmar recognizes freedom of speech and has become “one of ASEAN’s leading democracies,” a diplomatic source said. But the country still has many undemocratic aspects, such as a constitutional clause allocating a quarter of parliamentary seats to the military.

Senior NLD member Win Htein said that Suu Kyi has not given up on changing the constitution, but is simply focused more on political stability. Suu Kyi’s true test — advancing democratic change while keeping the military on her side — still lies ahead.

Link: http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Pragmatic-Suu-Kyi-builds-rapport-with-military