When President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar\’s opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday, he will encounter a figure in the midst of an evolution he finds familiar: the shift from history-making trailblazer to establishment politician.
Four years after being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi is now a member of Myanmar\’s Parliament and has been pushing for changes to a constitutional provision that is blocking her path to the presidency. While the 69-year-old Suu Kyi remains beloved by many in this long-isolated Southeast Asian nation, she has been criticized for failing to take a tougher line against the country\’s former military leaders and for staying largely silent about the abuse of Muslim minorities that could jeopardize Myanmar\’s fitful move toward democracy.
"Mahatma Gandhi unequivocally denounced all forms of intolerance and so did Nelson Mandela," Jody Williams, a Nobel Prize-winning American human rights activist, said of two figures with whom Suu Kyi is often compared. "If she wants to lead the country, help it develop, she has to do the same."
Rights activists have suggested that Suu Kyi\’s caution reflects her fears of alienating military lawmakers who still control a quarter of the seats in Parliament. Obama administration officials agree that some of her decisions appear to be driven by political motivations, particularly her reluctance to address the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who are deeply disdained by most people in Myanmar.
Obama and Suu Kyi met briefly Thursday on the sidelines of a regional summit in Naypyitaw, the capital city that Myanmar\’s former military leaders secretly built in the middle of the jungle in the early 2000s. The city has the lush hotels and impressive public buildings of a modern capital, but its vast empty spaces and eerily empty multilane highways have led to its reputation as something of a ghost town.
On Friday, Obama flew to the city of Yangon to hold more substantial talks with Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she spent much of her confinement.
The U.S. president has often spoken of his admiration for her, heralding the "unbreakable courage and determination" of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate during his first trip to Myanmar in 2012. The White House has also gone out of its way to promote Suu Kyi in its overtures to Myanmar, with Obama notably holding his news conference on this trip with the opposition leader, not the country\’s president, Thein Sein.
Obama\’s own compelling personal history includes none of the hardships endured by Suu Kyi, who was confined for more than two decades and whose father, the founder of the Burmese Independence Army, was assassinated. But Obama — whose election as America\’s first black president was seen as a precursor to broader political changes in Washington — shares with Suu Kyi the experience of having sky-high expectations deflated amid political realities.
That\’s been true for Obama both in the U.S., where his poll numbers have sagged and his party just suffered devastating defeats in midterm elections, as well as abroad. And his policy toward Myanmar in particular has been a tale of lofty goals proving difficult to reach.
Obama had broadly embraced Myanmar\’s move away from a half-century of military rule, suspending U.S. sanctions and rewarding the country with high-level visits from American officials. But Myanmar has stalled in fulfilling its promises of political and economic reforms, and in some cases has lost ground.
Still Obama, in a meeting Thursday with Myanmar\’s president, said the promise of democratization in the country is real.
"We recognize that change is hard and it doesn\’t always move in a straight line," Obama said after his meeting at Thein Sein\’s opulent palace. "But I am optimistic about the possibilities for Myanmar."
One of Myanmar\’s biggest tests comes during next year\’s election. Suu Kyi is unable to run for president because of a constitutional rule prohibiting anyone with strong allegiances to a foreign national from standing for the presidency. Suu Kyi\’s sons are British, as was her late husband.
Obama has been pressing Myanmar\’s leaders to amend the Constitution, but has been careful to not directly endorse Suu Kyi as the country\’s next president. And despite Obama\’s respect for Suu Kyi, officials say the president will press her to speak out on the persecution of the Rohingya.
"We believe that all leaders across the political spectrum can play a role in speaking out," said Ben Rhodes, Obama\’s deputy national security adviser. "Her voice is obviously critically important."
Separately, the White House announced Friday that it will work with Japan and Denmark to try to improve the labor environment in Myanmar, where poor conditions for workers have long been a concern.
For her part, Suu Kyi has also become increasingly critical of the Obama administration, suggesting that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to the reality of Myanmar\’s stalled reforms.
"We do think there have been times when the U.S. has been overly optimistic," she told reporters last week. "What significant reforms have been taken within the last 24 months? This is something the United States needs to think very seriously about as well."