Aung San Suu Kyi’s Australia visit tantamount to election campaign

Author: Trevor Wilson, ANU

Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent official visit to Australia served important political and diplomatic purposes for the Myanmar opposition, and was far from a mere ceremonial or celebratory event.

Suu Kyi’s visit attracted a high level of Australian popular interest, perhaps comparable to Nelson Mandela’s 23 years earlier. Her packed schedule pursued some serious agenda items with both Australian and Burmese audiences, and appears to have mostly achieved her presumed political objectives for the trip.

As well as receiving honorary degrees in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, Suu Kyi addressed Australian media, large Burmese community groups, and met a small group of Australian firms keen to do business in Myanmar. She was particularly interested in higher education reform, especially the ‘revitalisation’ of Yangon University, and showed interest in Australian achievements in university education. As UNAIDS’s ambassador against discrimination, she addressed an international HIV/AIDS conference in Sydney. In these and other areas, Suu Kyi would have found her visit educational and worthwhile.

Suu Kyi’s meetings provided Australians and Burmese alike with a clear indication of what to expect from a ‘democratic’ Myanmar, should her National League for Democracy party (NLD) win the 2015 general elections, as is widely forecasted. Declaring herself proud to be a politician, she openly sought support for her political standpoint and for the NLD.

Both publicly and privately, Suu Kyi urged Australians and Australian organisations dealing with Myanmar to be aware of policies and practices consistent with responsible, transparent and democratic standards, and not to focus unduly on building relationships with the present undemocratic government and its supporters, including business cronies. She made it clear that she hoped Australia would provide increased support for Myanmar’s democratisation process, as being advocated by the NLD, and would have carefully noted reactions to these calls.

Suu Kyi declared her commitment to ‘responsible’ trade and investment in Myanmar, but did not call for Australian investors to cease or defer their business activities there.

She emphasised that Australian businesses should not just seek short-term profits but also position themselves for sustainable longer-term commercial success. She was critical of investors who pursued exploitative policies that had negative consequences for the environment or labour rights. She called on anyone doing business with Myanmar to strive for concrete benefits for the Burmese, in the specific form of employment opportunities and skills enhancement, and was critical of the gas sector for not providing significant benefits for ordinary citizens. Though these views are typical of Burmese activist views, it might be noted that they do not reflect the real extent of technology, skill and income transfers that actually occur in this sector.

Suu Kyi referred openly to her interest in standing for president after 2015, and was frank in her criticism of the current constitutional provisions that prevent her from being a candidate, which she said made it one of the most undemocratic constitutions in the world. She insisted that Myanmar had a long way to go before it could claim to be democratic, and referred to the lack of progress in improving the rule of law and judicial independence.

She encouraged any Burmese Australians, who might not be well-acquainted with NLD thinking, to align themselves more consciously with the NLD. But when Prime Minister Abbott was asked by a journalist if Australia would help remove these constitutional obstacles he merely replied that he was pleased to learn from meeting President Thein Sein on his March 2013 visit to Australia that Myanmar had made significant progress in this area and stated that Suu Kyi’s visit to Australia was testimony to this, although there was still a long way to go.

Notably, Australia’s Kachin community boycotted her visit on the grounds that she had not provided sufficient support for them in their insurgency against the Myanmar government. This ‘boycott’ received little attention in the Australian media and does not seem to have damaged her visit in any discernible way.

Overall, Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit had some characteristics of an election campaign, where she positioned herself fairly clearly against the current Myanmar government, perhaps more so than she does on many other occasions. She was also assessing her support among Australia’s Burmese community, which has traditionally been one of the key international outposts of support for democratic change in Myanmar and might have even been a source of fundraising for the NLD for the 2015 elections. Suu Kyi would have presumably been well satisfied with the evidence of strong community support for the NLD ahead of the 2015 elections. She might have hoped for more evidence of undiluted Australian government support for her position than she actually received, but this should not represent any kind of setback.

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

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