2016 | 29 | 131-146
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It’s Complicated: United States, Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S.-Burma Relations

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Until 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi has been the point of reference for U.S. policy towards Burma/Myanmar. Her struggle with Burmese military junta has attracted a widespread attention and a global affection for her. As a result, Suu Kyi enjoyed an unquestioned support from subsequent U.S. president administrations. This, however, has changed in 2011 when Suu Kyi was politically sacrificed by the U.S. pivot to Asia. Nevertheless, she faced it bravely and did not give in; just changed her tactics from confrontation to cooperation with the post-military regime. That gave her a stunning electoral victory in 2015 and power from behind-the-scenes in Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s relations with Washington have remained cordial, yet complicated ever since.
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  • The Institute of Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland
  • Robert Keohane, ‘Theory of World Politics: Structural Realism and Beyond’ in Neorealism and Its Critics, Robert O. Keohane (ed.), New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 198.
  • David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar. What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 53; David Steinberg, Burma. The State in Myanmar, Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2000, pp. 39–51; Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Tokyo 1999, pp. 214–215.
  • John Kane, The Politics of Moral Capital, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 147–171.
  • Visits to Burma/Myanmar, 2010-2016; see also my biography of Aung San Suu Kyi: Michał Lubina, Pani Birmy. Biografia polityczna Aung San Suu Kyi [Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. A Political Biography], Warszawa: PWN, 2015.
  • Brantly Womack, ‘Asymmetry and Systemic Misperception: China, Vietnam and Cambodia’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2003; Maung Aung Myoe, In the Name of Pauk-Phaw. Myanmar’s China Policy Since 1948, Singapore 2011, p. 5.
  • Tim McLaughlin, Creeping Tigers, Intelligent Elephants and Befriending Communists: Memoirs of Visits by Three Former US Presidents in Sanctions to Success, Myanmar Times Special Report, 2012, p. 3; David Steinberg, ‘Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese Relationship and Its Vicissitudes’ in Short of the Goal, U.S. Policy and Poorly Performing States, Nancy Birdsall, Milan Vaishnav and Robert L. Ayres (eds.), Washington D.C.: Brookings, 2006, p. 223.
  • Andre Selth, ‘Burma And Superpower Rivalries in the Asia-Pacific’, US Naval War College Review, Vol. 55, No. 2, spring 2002, p. 44; Lisa Brooten, ‘The Feminization of Democracy Under Siege: The Media, “the Lady” of Burma, and U.S. Foreign Policy’, NWSA Journal, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2005, p. 138.
  • Robert H. Taylor, ‘Bilateral relations: then and now’ in Sanctions to Success… p. 9; David Steinberg, Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese…, p. 223.
  • Anthony J. Stockwell, ‘Southeast Asia in War and Peace: The End of European Colonial Empires’ in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Nicolas Tarling (ed.), Vol. 2, Part 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007, p. 15.
  • William C. Johnstone, Burma’s Foreign Policy: A Study in Neutralism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Steinberg, Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese…, p. 223.
  • Selth, Burma And Superpower Rivalries…, pp. 45–46.
  • Steinberg, Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese…, p. 223.
  • Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps. A Personal History of Burma, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p. 270.
  • Selth, Burma And Superpower Rivalries…, p. 46
  • Robert H. Taylor, The State in Myanmar, Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2009, p. 346.
  • Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps..., p. 302.
  • Taylor, ‘Bilateral relations…’, p. 9.
  • Martin Smith, Burma. Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, London, Dhaka and Bangkok: Zed Books, 1999, pp. 248–258.
  • Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt. Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999, p. 315; Steinberg, Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese…, p. 224.
  • Lintner, Burma in Revolt…., p. 315.
  • More on 1988 revolution, see: Bertil Lintner, Outrage. Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, Bangkok: White Lotus, 1990, pp. 70–140.
  • Her popularity and her ideas can be traced in the collection of her text and speeches, Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear and Other Writings, London: Pegnuin Books 1991, pp. 167–227.
  • Justin Wintle, Perfect Hostage. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, London: Arrow Books, 2007, p. 330.
  • Hans-Bernd Zöllner, The Beast and the Beauty. The History of the Conflict between the Military and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, 1988-2011, Set in a Global Context, Berlin: Regio Spectra, 2012, pp. 277–359 and 281–282.
  • Bertil Lintner, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2011, p. 78.
  • Thant Myint-U,The River of Lost Footsteps…, p. 332.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements, The Voice of Hope. Conversations with Alan Clements, New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997, p. 218; Levy Adrian, ‘Portrait. Aung San Suu Kyi’, Prospect Magazine, No. 65, July 2001, p. 2.
  • David Steinberg, Burma-Myanmar: The U.S.-Burmese…, p. 225.
  • 1997 Executive Order 13047 of May 20, Executive Order 13047 – Prohibiting New Investment in Burma: (accessed 10.06.2016); Sanctions Against Burma, Treasury of State: (accessed 10.06.2016).
  • Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, Public Law 108–61, 28.06.2003, U.S. Department of the Treasury: (accessed 10.06.2016)
  • Sanctions Against….
  • Quoted in: Steinberg, Burma…, p. 244.
  • Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps…, p. 342.
  • Evan Osnos, ‘The Burmese Spring’, The New Yorker, 6 August 2012: (accessed 17.06.2016); more about the impact of sanctions on ordinary people’s lives: Michael W. Charney, A History of Modern Burma, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 186.
  • Breton, The Feminization of Democracy…, p. 139.
  • Ibidem.
  • See for example: Burma: It Can’t Wait / U.S. Campaign for Burma.
  • Taylor, ‘Bilateral relations…’, p. 9.
  • Bertil Lintner, ‘Burma, North Korea Stay Brothers in Arms’, Asia Times Online, 5 September 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Bogdan Góralczyk, Amerykański „naszyjnik” wokół Chin – USA zwiększają obecność w Azji [US necklet on China. The Americans increase their presence in Asia], 7 May 2014,,1329,title,Amerykanski-naszyjnik-wokol-Chin-USA-zwiekszaja-obecnosc-w-Azji,wid,16584874,wiadomosc.html?ticaid=117350 (accessed 17.06.2016). “String of pearls” is a popular name of Chinese bases and ports on the raw materials supply line from Africa to China via Indian Ocean; Beijing has been building them in order to have an insurance should relations with the USA deteriorate. Without Myanmar this “string of pearls” is incomplete.
  • I derived this phrase from one of the reviews and I am grateful for the anonymous reviewer for it as well as for pointing me the fact of junta’s own “pivot”.
  • Zöllner, The Beast and the Beauty…, p. 469.
  • Mary P. Callahan, Making Enemies. War and State Building in Burma, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Quoted in: Evan Osnos, The Burmese Spring, The New Yorker, 6 August 2012: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Steinberg, Burma…, p. 234.
  • About junta’s inner circle consideration, see more: Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, Soldiers and Diplomacy in Burma. Understanding the Foreign Relations of the Burmese
  • Praetorian State, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013.
  • David Steinberg and Hongwei Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations…, p. 364.
  • The last phrase is taken from the review; the reviewer is right that “without generals’ decision to reform, the U.S. just could do nothing vis-a-vis Myanmar, even within its ‘pivot’”.
  • Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, The White House, 28 May 2014: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Aung Zaw, The Face of Resistance. Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Fight for Freedom, Bangkok: Mekong Press, 2012, pp. 104–137.
  • Evan Osnos, ‘The Burmese Spring’, The New Yorker, 6 August 2012: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Aung Zaw, The Face of Resistance…, p. 137.
  • Wai Yan Hpone, ‘The Lady’s Predicament’, The Irrawaddy, 31 March 2015: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • ‘In Emotional Tribute, Sen. John McCain Tells Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi She Taught Him ‘A Thing or Two about Courage’, Courier-Journal, 19 September 2012: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Remarks by President Obama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma in Joint Press Conference, 14 November 2014, The White House: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Poland and her meetings in Polish Parliament (Sejm, Senate), personal attendance.
  • Remarks by President Obama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi….
  • Aung San Suu Kyi, Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought Acceptance Speech, 22 October 2013.
  • Personal conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, Naypyidaw, 5 February 2015.
  • Constitution of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Burma Online Library: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Simon Montlake, ‘Myanmar Democracy Icon Suu Kyi Taps ‘Crony’ Capitalists for Charity Fund’s, Forbes, 16 January 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Jonathan Owen, ‘Why Suu Kyi Still Loves Burma’s Army’, The Independent, 27 January 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Aung Zaw, ‘The Letpadaung Saga and the End of an Era’, The Irrawaddy, 14 March 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Hanna Hindstrom, ‘Kachin Rebels Refuse to Invite Suu Kyi to Mediate Peace Process’, Democratic Voice of Burma, 14 February 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • For the latter she was heavily criticized in the West. Human rights activists that passionately supported her for two decades still cannot get over this kind of attitude, accusing her of betrayal, e.g. Tim Robertson, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: Colluding with Tyranny’, The Diplomat, 12 November 2014: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Wai Yan Hpone, ‘The Lady’s Predicament’, The Irrawaddy, 31 Marach 2015: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Aung Zaw, ‘Than Shwe-Suu Kyi Meet Intensifies Intrigue During Testing Transition’, The Irrawaddy, 5 December 2015: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • ‘Army to rebrand itself as new political reality sets in’, The Irrawaddy, 16 May 2016: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Naturally, the government of Myanmar is formally headed by President HtinKyaw, a former Suu Kyi’s staff member but nobody, including HtinKyaw hides the fact that it is Suu Kyi who is in charge of the country.
  • Quoted in: Bi Shihong, ‘Suu Kyi’s vision shapes Myanmar foreign policy’, Global Times, 26 April 2016: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • ‘High mountains, distant emperors’, The Economist, 23 April 2016: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Yun Sun, ‘Has China Lost Myanmar?’, Foreign Policy, 15 January 2013: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Quoted in: Yola Verbruggen, ‘NLD to look West, but not ignore its tough neighbours’, Myanmar Times, 22 April 2016: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • K. Yhome, ‘Why Aung San Suu Kyi will not abandon China for the US’, The Wire, 12 April 2016: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Ibidem.
  • Quoted in: ibidem
  • Quoted in: Verbruggen, NLD to look West….
  • Personal conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, Naypyidaw, 5 February 2015.
  • See for example her interviews with Alan Clements, which can be used as a textbook for other non-Western politicians on how to play on Western emotions, Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements, The Voice of Hope….
  • At her first major speech at Shwedagon pagoda in 1988 she already declared that: ‘Speech to a Mass Rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda’ in Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom…, pp. 192–199.
  • Quoted in: Verbruggen, NLD to look West….
  • Probably the best illustration of her understanding of democracy comes from this speech from 1999: “It is very important for our members to be extra loyal... According to democratic principles, everyone has the right to have their own beliefs, to think independently and to have freedom of expression. But if one acts disloyally in exercising those rights, one is a renegade, a traitor”, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Speech on 27-5-1999, Online Burma/Myanmar Library: (accessed 10.03.15).
  • More about Rohingya, see from two different perspectives: Robert H. Taylor, ‘Refighting Old Battles, Compounding Misconceptions: The Politics of Ethnicity in Myanmar Today’, ISEAS Perspective, December 2015: (accessed 17.06.2016); International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar Conflict Alert: Preventing communal bloodshed and building better relations, 12 June 2012: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Al Jazeera Investigates – Genocide Agenda, 26 October 2015: (accessed 17.06.2016).
  • Yhome, Why Aung San Suu Kyi will not abandon….
  • Womack, Asymmetry and Systemic Misperception…, p. 5.
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