Washington, September 23, 2016. Power is an old game in this city, but a style in play last week made all others seem crude. Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective head of state of Burma, was in town, and in her presence, the American government performed at peak form.
On Tuesday, even as her plane was still crossing the Atlantic, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) were introducing the "Burma Strategy Act of 2016," as elegant a piece of legislation as one could conceive--intelligent, sensitive, outward-looking, exactly what would be needed should the executive branch want to ease sanctions in a country long beset by corruption and human rights abuse--which was, of course, the case.
The Act addressed the issues of persons anxious about continuing corruption and human rights abuses but set in place watchdog guidelines while still allowing the country to take advantage of American business acumen and investment.
Rather than leaving the still-reeling country to muddle its way after 50 years of a civically incompetent junta, the Burma Strategy Act charges U.S. representatives in international financial institutions to "support projects in Burma that focus on transparency and accountability" and authorizes the Secretary of State to monitor progress.
So, when Aung San Suu Kyi woke her first morning in the U.S., she could walk calmly into breakfast at the home of Vice President Biden, who had invited the leaders of both chambers of Congress. Over broth, noodles and tea, she was able to discuss the law, address concerns, and agree to visit separately with more members the next morning. Lunch at Blair House with Secretary Kerry was similarly pleasant.
By early afternoon, Aung San Suu Kyi was in the Oval Office seated comfortably beside the President. Their mutual esteem was apparent, and, though neither spoke from prepared remarks, the meeting took but thirteen minutes. The President warmly praised his guest for all she and her colleagues had accomplished in six months and said that given the momentum, he was confident the U.S. could help by moving from sanctions to other forms of support.
One member of Congress had taken umbrage at something she said earlier in the day, so the next morning, he and numerous other members of Congress met with her in their caucuses. Senator Corkin, one of the bill's sponsors, had followed up. "I was pleased to see that there was a detailed response and the issue was taken very seriously," he told VOA.
By Thursday evening Aung San Suu Kyi had accomplished what she had come to do with government and was free to turn to courting business investors.
That is power.
What is it that made these figures in an otherwise paralyzed government behave like a corps de ballet? Burma is important, to be sure, a key in the "pivot" to Asia--a crossroads between China and India, and an ally with Japan in the struggle for balance in the region. But in a Washington tainted by years of scorn and scarred by an acid campaign, few elected officials are eager to advance one another's agenda, much less turn intricate international maneuvers on a dime.
Aung San Suu Kyi's power works because it evokes the honor most members brought to public service in the first place. Could anyone in Washington actually tell a leader overseeing the birth of a federal democracy not to bother? That the "e pluribus unum" model the Burmese hope to emulate is fundamentally dysfunctional? Or would a sense of personal honor and national pride inspire them to show how well it can work?
Could anyone in Washington tell someone who endured years of personal sacrifice to be able to lead her country that they were too embittered by petty squabbles in their mature democracy to give her a hand? Or would an awareness of the integrity that drove her all those years suggest that they display government at its best?
Aung San Suu Kyi has earned trust in a place currently reluctant to grant any. Her preparedness is profound. During the more than 15 years under house arrest, she spent hours planning what she would do if given the chance. Now she has the chance, and she is not going to throw it away. She and her party gained over 80% of the vote last year. She is now working assiduously, assuredly and fast. Who does not want to help?
In Washington she was as much benefactor as beneficiary. In her presence, democracy worked. Perhaps a rider could be added to the Burma Strategy Act 2016, that as part of the deal, Aung San Suu Kyi spend a week in Washington every year.
Susanne Dumbleton is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean at DePaul University. She is working on a book about Aung San Suu Kyi, Helen Prejean, and Wangari Maathai, intrepid leaders for social justice.