Aung San Suu Kyi will visit President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, a move that will affirm the former dissident’s role as Myanmar’s de facto leader and renew the question of whether Washington is ready to drop its remaining sanctions on the country.
Her arrival in the U.S. will also cast a spotlight on Mr. Obama’s efforts to cement his administration’s pivot to Asia in his final months in office.
Both sides have been preparing the ground for the visit. Ms. Suu Kyi last month visited China, Myanmar’s most important neighbor and trade partner, where she worked to help restore relations after a fraught few years during which Myanmar tilted more toward the West after its military began a series of political reforms.
Ms. Suu Kyi has also moved to tackle some of the ethnic tensions that accompanied this political liberalization. This month she met with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who she invited to lead an advisory commission investigating violence in Rakhine state. More than 100 ethnic Rohingya Muslims were killed there during sectarian rioting in 2012; thousands more tried to escape by boat to Malaysia or Thailand.
The U.S., in an effort to spur trade, eased some of its economic sanctions on Myanmar in May after Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won elections in November. It introduced general licenses, or waivers, that make it easier for American companies or individuals to do business in Myanmar. It also removed seven state-owned enterprises and three state-owned banks from a blacklist of companies prohibited from doing business with the U.S., while adding an additional six—all controlled by businessman Steven Law and his Asia World conglomerate.
It is unclear whether the U.S.—or Myanmar, for that matter—would like to see the sanctions relaxed further.
“It’s something that we continue to look at, because the purpose of the sanctions regime was to support a democratic transition, and some of the sanctions even were tied to the treatment of Ms. Suu Kyi specifically,” deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters during Mr. Obama’s visit to Laos last week.
Some of Ms. Suu Kyi’s advisers, meanwhile, suggest that sanctions shouldn’t be fully lifted: They need them to exert pressure on Myanmar’s military, which still controls the important defense and interior ministries and effectively shares power with Ms. Suu Kyi’s administration.
One of her party’s biggest gripes is a legal ban on Ms. Suu Kyi becoming president because her two adult sons are foreign nationals—a constitutional prohibition introduced by the military and that can be removed only with the support of the 25% voting bloc that the army controls in parliament.
Instead, Ms. Suu Kyi officially fills the specially created role of state counselor. Her visit to the White House, confirmed by Mr. Obama during an Asian leaders’ summit last week, helps to underscore her role as Myanmar’s leader irrespective of whether she has the title of president, which is held by her nominee, Htin Kyaw.
Some human-rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called on Washington to maintain its remaining sanctions on the country to deter the military from backsliding on political reforms.
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org