Myanmar’s Mirror

15 April 2016
Myanmar’s Mirror
Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech entitled 'Resilience in Turbulent Times' at the ASEAN 100 Leadership Forum in Yangon, Myanmar, 06 December 2012. Photo: EPA

For the first time in the history of ASEAN, there will be a Nobel peace laureate and the world’s most famous political icon in the AMM (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting or the ASEAN annual meeting) family. Myanmar’s new Foreign Minister Aung Sun Suu Kyi needs to know a few things about the organization, which she has had a dreadful relationship with. Of course, before she attends the first AMM on 22-23 July in Vientiane, she should come up with an overall policy towards ASEAN as a precursor to her future numerous ASEAN-related meetings in the next five years. Laos said that there would be at least one thousand meetings—in comparison to 2004 when Laos chaired and hosted about 400 meetings.
First, when the ASEAN foreign ministers meet, they will meet informally, say, the night before. The informal meeting, as they would like to call it, is the place where the leaders can discuss issues and concerns she wants to raise. Some of these issues would already, if they are really serious, have been addressed by ASEAN senior officials, who normally meet before their ministers gather. 
Second, ASEAN foreign ministers are humble people, nobody stands out. Sometimes, it is a rather boring meeting, reading and hearing speeches from all ten members. But this is an important ritual for all. Sometimes, real messages slipout during these speeches.
Third, Suu Kyi, as a new comer, must take into account other ASEAN colleagues. Listen to their conversations, especially from other new members such as Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. With Suu Kyi’s political popularity, she does not need to impress anyone.  
Fourth, it is about consensus. It is all right to disagree with ASEAN colleagues. With Suu Kyi, there will be lots of disagreements due to her unique political experience and orientation. No other ASEAN foreign ministers were under house arrest before. So her past has been rather extreme in comparison with other ministers who were either party members, trusted aides or lawyers, and diplomats.
Fifth, under the Lao chairmanship, this year is an extraordinary year, in which ASEAN has to engage three major powers, the US, Russia and China at the highest levels. It is important for her and Myanmar to coordinate ASEAN views to represent the organization as a whole.
Sixth, Suu Kyi, and her aides must read all documents related to ASEAN, especially past communiques and chairman’s statements, to understand the essence of being ASEAN. Speaking and writing are two different things in the ASEAN culture of diplomacy. Myanmar’s chair in 2014 was exemplary as it reflected very ASEAN thinking.
Seventh, since she is “above the president” that does not mean she is above “all the ASEAN ministers” when she attends the AMM, there are certain protocols and procedures that she has to follow. It is incumbent on her to separate her role in the discussions and decision-making as a foreign minister or as a state councilor.
Eighth, the issue of irregular migrants will come up whether she likes it or not. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have already taken part in dialogue to resolve this sensitive issue. Her predecessor, U Thien Sein, gave a green light for Myanmar to take part in international conferences to address this issue.  If she finds it uncomfortable to discuss, she must make her position known to senior officials ahead of time, otherwise, it could cause some misunderstanding. In 2004, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, due to poor communication, threatened to walk out from the Vientiane summit if Malaysia raised the massacre in Tak Bai which had been blamed on him.
Ninth, as an opposition leader and political icon, whenever she takes pictures with a group, she always stands in the middle. In the ASEAN photo-op, the chair is in the middle. Whatever the line-up would be, it is important to know and follow the cues from the chair and other ministers to avoid awkward situations. With her august presence, gender equity must be strictly observed.
Tenth, the ASEAN unique hand-shake is very important. New ASEAN leaders have often failed to practice it and it could be embarrassing in front of global TV and social media. Indonesian President Joko Widodo was caught in this awkward position before. So, practicing the hand-shake with two hands in different directions is a must. If she is assigned to stand at the end of the line, she does not have to extend the other hand.