Myanmar Leaders Compete With Suu Kyi Stardom to Showcase Changes

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader, seen on a viewfinder, speaks at the World Economic Forum on East Asia 2012 in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday, June 1, 2012. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Myanmar’s leaders are increasing appearances abroad as they try to convince the world their shift to democracy is genuine even as Aung San Suu Kyi warned against “reckless optimism” on her first overseas trip in 24 years.

Defense Minister Hla Min told attendees at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend that the military was “100 percent” behind President Thein Sein, who has spearheaded political change in the former dictatorship. He also urged foreigners to invest in the impoverished nation of 64 million people, which was rewarded with the suspension of U.S. and European sanctions after April by-elections.

The appearance of Myanmar policymakers at events such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and a World Economic Forum meeting in Bangkok last week follows years of silence accompanied by international isolation. The increased attention is testing the political acumen of both Thein Sein’s 15-month-old government and Suu Kyi’s opposition party as they focus on delivering results for constituents unaccustomed to political openness.

“On the one hand, they both have an interest in seeing the reforms succeed,” said Hans Vriens, managing partner of Vriens & Partners, a Singapore-based political risk firm. “At the same time they are also in competition for the 2015 elections.”

Hla Min told a security forum in Singapore two days ago that the army will obey the civilian government and may eventually accept a reduced role in Parliament. His statement came a day after Suu Kyi questioned the military’s acceptance of moves to allow greater political freedom on her first trip outside Myanmar since 1988.

‘Salt Water’

The military may support changing the constitution to drop the 25 percent allotment of parliamentary seats “if and when appropriate,” he said, adding that the transition needed time. “If you have a fish in fresh water, you cannot put the fish into salt water.”

Hla Min also appealed for the U.S. and Europe to completely lift sanctions, a measure Suu Kyi opposes. He spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would hold talks with Myanmar on security issues as engagement between the countries deepened.

Sanctions against Myanmar are “not beneficial to anybody and the people are suffering,” Hla Min said at the event, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based policy research group. “Instead of suspending the sanctions, we would prefer that the sanctions are entirely lifted so that investors to our country can have a better deal.”

Western Sanctions

The U.S. and the European Union eased sanctions after April 1 by-elections that saw Suu Kyi’s party win 43 of 45 seats, giving them representation in the 664-member body where a quarter of positions are reserved for the military. London-based WPP Plc, the world’s biggest advertising company, and Tata Motors Ltd., India’s biggest automaker, were among companies that announced investments in Myanmar last month.

“They need foreign investors and they want recognition,” Vriens said. “This is their coming-out party.”

Hla Min’s remarks followed a speech by his Cabinet colleague, Energy Minister Than Htay, at a meeting in Bangkok sponsored by the World Economic Forum that Thein Sein was supposed to attend before he canceled at the last minute. With Suu Kyi in attendance, Than Htay called the government’s steps toward democracy a “successful transition.”

Migrant Workers

Later this week, Industry Minister Soe Thane, who serves as head of the Myanmar Investment Commission, will give a keynote address at a separate forum in Singapore sponsored by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Two of Thein Sein’s advisers, Ko Ko Hlaing and Winston Set Aung, will also speak at the event.

Suu Kyi yesterday returned to Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. During her six-day visit to Thailand, she met thousands of Burmese migrant workers, addressed Asian business leaders at the World Economic Forum and visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.

At the World Economic Forum, Suu Kyi said her top priority is creating jobs to offset a youth unemployment “time bomb” while declining to name industries the government should seek to attract. Suu Kyi supported the suspension of sanctions because it shows positive steps will be rewarded, “but at the same time, if the good behavior is not continued then the reward will be taken away again,” she said.

‘Reckless Optimism’

“These days I’m coming across a lot of what I would call reckless optimism,” Suu Kyi told the World Economic Forum participants. “That is not going to help you. It’s not going to help us.”

Suu Kyi will receive more attention later this month on a trip to Europe, where she will address the British parliament and accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won during her 15 years under house arrest.

Thein Sein and his Cabinet ministers have hosted British Prime Minister David Cameron, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the past few months. Next year they will host a World Economic Forum conference and the Southeast Asian Games, and in 2014 will hold the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the first time.

“People should be confident that these changes are for real,” Andrew Rickards, chief executive officer of Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd., a Singapore-based developer of properties in Myanmar, said yesterday by e-mail. “However, investors should be cautious before going in head-first. The country has a long way to go and the institutions within the country are not ready for a huge influx of money yet.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE