Which foreign minister did Aung San Suu Kyi meet first?

Sorry Mr Kerry, it was China's Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi.

By Loke Hoe Yeong

The ultimate proof of the resilience of the new Aung San Suu Kyi government would lie in how it deals with concrete issues and dilemmas. In this regard, the subject of Ms Suu Kyi’s first foreign engagement after taking up a place in the Myanmar government is very instructive.

In what was billed as the meeting between “the world’s best-known democracy activist” and “the foreign minister of the world’s biggest authoritarian state”, Ms Suu Kyi invited China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, to the capital of Myanmar, Naypyidaw.

It was the right move, and a bold in many respects.

Rather than meeting her US counterpart or a foreign minister from the West, Ms Suu Kyi chose China. She has had to handle the resentment over the growing influence of Myanmar over her country, and yet has to be conscious of not upsetting its larger neighbour to the north, which would be to the severe detriment of Myanmar’s stability during this critical period of democratic transition.

In 2011 then president Thein Sein abruptly announced the cancellation of a major Chinese dam at Myitsone, at the top of the Irrawaddy river, to the surprise of China. Thein Sein and the military rulers of Myanmar had become increasingly conscious of the political backlash that China’s growing influence in the country could pose for them. Other projects robustly supported by China, such as the railway linking China’s Yunnan province with the Bay of Bengal, were similarly cancelled by Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military rulers, as well as Ms Suu Kyi’s new government which faces additional pressure to prove itself, are bent on rapid economic development. China’s role in this, especially in infrastructure building, is impossible to do without. Ms Suu Kyi would have to win over her ministers and her whole party base on the issue of China – they have tended to be more pro-Western and be suspicious of China.

There is reason for optimism. Beijing, to its credit, has deftly managed its transition towards working with the incoming Myanmar government, after having done business for so many years with their military rulers – at least judging from what Mr Wang Yi has done this month.

This ministry or that?

Yet beneath the thus-far steely resolve of Myanmar’s new foreign minister-cum-prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she would drop two of the four ministerial posts that she was sworn in for earlier this month – just less than five days after taking the oath.

In the midst of a key moment of Myanmar’s democratic transition, much debate has been focused on Ms Suu Kyi assuming no less than four ministerial posts – that of foreign affairs, education, energy and a portfolio in the President’s office. She announced she would be giving up the ministerial portfolios of education and energy.

The concerns, from her supporters and critics alike, were whether she could cope with so many portfolios, in additional to playing the prime ministerial role of “state councilor”.

Some accuse her of her over domineering power and influence over the government, in the same way she has exercised control over her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), for almost three decades. They question too whether the next generation of NLD leaders can truly take root and grow. Ms Suu Kyi is soon reaching the age of 71, and yet there is no clear heir apparent to the leadership of the NLD.

This is not at all to play down the extraordinary circumstances in which the NLD had been forced to operate for most of its history, facing severe crackdown during the period of the military rule.

The one point that has been neglected, and possibly the more important one, is that there is perhaps an acute shortage of qualified figures to fill those cabinet positions for the NLD – qualified in terms of their academic prerequisites as well as they penchant for running a ministry.

Controversy over the questionable academic credentials of two potential cabinet ministers ignited in late March. Kyaw Win, who was expected to be the minister of finance and planning, claimed to have a master’s degree and a PhD from a Brooklyn Park University, which turned out to be a Pakistan-based degree mill. Another potential cabinet member, Than Myint, said he had similar qualifications from Pacific Western University, an unaccredited institution.

Their iniquity may not be so astounding to international observers who would be familiar with the scandal involving a former defence minister of Germany plagiarising passages for his doctoral dissertation in 2011. And neither were Kyaw Win’s and Than Myint’s predecessors in the previous Myanmar government, controlled largely by the country’s military leaders, any more illustrious in their academic qualifications, bona fide or otherwise.

But it is perhaps indicative that Ms Suu Kyi had said that her filling of the four ministerial posts initially was a temporary move, and that she is still finding the “right people” for the roles in time to come.