Two speeches by two leaders made headlines this week – one by US President Donald Trump, the other by Myanmar’s head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi.
No two leaders could be so unlike each other. Trump is a widely ridiculed figure in the international community, which mocks him for being, variously, pompous, boorish and sometimes just plain ignorant. Sui Kyi, a Nobel laureate, is a fallen angel caught up in the maelstrom of her silence over the attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, on August 25 , and the ensuing military response, which has forced over 410,000 displaced people to flee to Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi probably faces the greater challenge insofar as she has, lately, been vilified for not being the Mother Teresa figure the world had come to expect. Trump is rather better placed, because he stands on ground zero: his reputation can only go up.
What impressions did their speeches leave behind?
Trump began his by boasting about the US military being “the strongest it has ever been,” thanks to the US$700 billion he has added to its budget. He went on to assert the US’ prerogative of imposing its values on other countries. Specifically, he threatened North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, and to blackmail the United Nations by warning that he may withhold funding unless the organization served American interests better.
Far from resenting the intrusive and highly provocative role of outsiders, Suu Kyi welcomed a constructive engagement with the international community in the period ahead
Trump spoke in Manichean terms, breaking everything down into “good” or “evil.” His signal message was that thanks to his “America First” strategy the US has regenerated itself in economic and military terms and intends to reclaim global hegemony.
Trump must be delusional if he really believes the US can attack North Korea – or Iran – and achieve anything more than a Pyhrric victory. But Trump is a businessman and the paramountcy of deal-making is never lost on him.
A sure sign of this was the complete absence of any derogatory reference to Russia or China in his entire speech. Moscow and Beijing must be quietly chuckling to themselves that this clever fixer is counting on them to salvage his reputation. Welcome to the “multipolar” world.
Suu Kyi’s speech, on the other hand, offered a study in moderation, restraint and reconciliation. She didn’t exude any “exceptionalism” but instead sought in all humility the understanding of the world community for her country’s deficiencies.
Sui Kyi’s purpose was not to apportion blame. She acknowledged the “allegations and counter-allegations” but pragmatically reserved judgment.
Security operations against the militants enjoy massive popular support within Myanmar, but a large section of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state has been unaffected by the violence.
Suu Kyi called attention to the pervasiveness of ethnic divides in her country. She could have taken the easy route by putting all the blame on the “foreign hand” or “Islamist extremism,” or struck a nationalist chord. But she chose to be introspective. She squarely placed recent developments within the context of Myanmar’s political economy and related them to three core challenges that her government faces – democratic transition, peace and stability, and development. And she candidly admitted that Myanmar is an “imperfect democracy.”
The salience of Suu Kyi’s speech hinged on three inter-related planes. First and foremost, she pledged to implement the recommendations made by a commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Secondly, she spoke of a strategy with a “definite timeline” for conducting “citizenship verification.” In particular, she called for a speeding up of the process of refugees returning from Bangladesh according to norms previously agreed between the two countries.
Thirdly, and importantly, far from resenting the intrusive and highly provocative role of outsiders, Suu Kyi welcomed a constructive engagement with the international community in the period ahead.
Repellent, even to well-wishers
Trump should study Suu Kyi’s speech to get a better understanding of the realities of developing countries. The two speeches reveal contrasting visions of today’s world. Is shared self-interest the sole basis of cooperation, as Trump implied? Can international life be reduced to threats to US hegemony?
There is a whole world out there beyond America’s shores with myriad problems – stemming from poverty, disease, ignorance, terrorism, climate change, and so on. It takes an erudite mind to comprehend such problems, let alone prescribe solutions.
Suu Kyi didn’t use the word “global governance,” but she sought help from the UN to navigate issues arising from imperfect nationhood following five decades of authoritarian rule. It is inconceivable that Trump would seek help from the UN to address the deep-rooted disease of racial prejudice and violence that wracks American society.
Trump uses the language of threat and blackmail – “rocket man” (Kim Jong Un); “rogue nations”; “scourge of our planet”. He is unforgiving, essentially because countries such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela do not follow America’s lead. He vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Such self-righteousness doesn’t win friends. It repels even well-wishers, especially when coming from someone whose sole contribution in power for nine months has been to exacerbate uncertainties in the international situation through a steady stream of contradictory bombastic tweets.
Suu Kyi made a crucial pledge of reconciliation. The least Trump can do is to desist from tearing up more international accords, negotiated in a spirit of consensus, that jar against his megalomaniacal world-view.