Aung San Suu Kyi and Australia’s new relationship with Myanmar

The Australian Government has confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi will visit Australia from 27 November to 2 December. This will be Suu Kyi’s first visit to Australia and follows her visits to the US, the UK, Europe, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand over the last eighteen months.

Traditionally, Western images of Suu Kyi have portrayed her as a lone heroine fighting tyrannical army generals. As Myanmar experts like Andrew Selth have argued, with her release from house arrest in late 2010 and the far-reaching reforms that are taking place in Myanmar, Suu Kyi now inhabits a much more complex set of roles in contemporary Myanmar politics.

First, Suu Kyi is the leader of a political party, the National League for Democracy, which faces the very real prospect of sweeping to power in the 2015 national elections but which is struggling with issues of technical capacity, internal democracy, and succession. Second, since her election to the parliament in April 2012, she is a practising politician who is now involved in and required to take positions on contentious issues like the revision of the 2008 Constitution, land disputes, and the peace and reconciliation process with ethnic minorities. Third, as the daughter of the country’s most famous independence hero, Suu Kyi is both a product and a critic of the special role that the military (tatmadaw) has played in Myanmar’s political history—a complex relationship that was reflected by the controversy surrounding her recent participation in Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day proceedings. Finally, she remains the international figurehead for Myanmar’s democracy movement and has had to grapple with difficult questions from global human rights activists about her attitudes toward the status and treatment of religious, particularly Muslim, minorities

In sum, Suu Kyi has moved from a political outsider to an  political ‘insider’ who, alongside senior government party figures like President Thein Sein and Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, will play a key role in any future constitutional grand bargain ahead of the 2015 national elections. Any such bargain will involve elements of compromise and consensus, processes not usually associated with her iconic status in the West and which may require her to take a conservative position on some issues. To quote one US-based Myanmar expert, ‘she is in a difficult position—she can be a moral force or she can be a politician but she can’t do both because in any democracy or representative government, a politician must make compromises that undercut their moral position’.

Myanmar’s political and economic future is important for Australia. Since mid-2011, Australia has pursued a closer engagement with Myanmar in response to the country’s political and economic reforms. In June 2011, the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, became the first Australian foreign minister to visit Myanmar since 2002. This was followed a year later with a visit by his successor, Bob Carr, and the visit to Australia by Myanmar’s current President, Thein Sein, in March 2013. Senator Carr travelled to Myanmar again in July 2013, the most recent visit by an Australian minister. Australia’s Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has also just visited Myanmar where she met with Suu Kyi.

This new era of engagement has resulted in closer bilateral ties:
  • the autonomous financial and travel sanctions that Australia had applied to Myanmar were lifted in July 2012, with the arms embargo the only restriction retained.
  • the two countries have moved to 'normalise’ the trade and investment relationship with the appointment of a new Australian trade commissioner to Myanmar.
  • defence and security links have been strengthened, with Australia announcing earlier this year that it would post a resident defence attaché to Yangon, a post which has been vacant since 1979.
  • Australia’s aid presence has been increased with new programs in areas like basic education and governance, and the commitment by the previous Labor government to increase development assistance to $100 million annually by 2015.
Myanmar will be in the international spotlight in 2014 as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit meetings. These meetings will be an opportunity for Myanmar’s neighbours and development partners, including Australia, to discuss its future reform plans. The meetings will also be an opportunity to discuss the risks that threaten further reform. These risks include the deadly outbreaks of sectarian violence that have occurred across Myanmar since mid-2012 and which continue to challenge its democratic transition.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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