As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed officials from 10 Southeast Asian nations this week, a Burmese representative handed him a personalized letter.
The author was Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto leader of the nation’s civilian government, who wanted to express her regret for being absent due to a scheduling conflict, U.S. officials said.
The note represented rare direct communication between Suu Kyi and the Trump administration. As President Trump has made a flurry of calls to foreign leaders, he has yet to speak with Suu Kyi, who twice welcomed Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to her lakeside villa in Rangoon as a powerful symbol of U.S. support for Burma’s slow, fitful transition from authoritarian military rule to fledgling democracy.
The Burma project remains fraught — political reforms have ebbed, and Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to speak out more forcefully against ethnic violence directed toward the Muslim minority. And China continues to exert economic and political pressure on the neighboring nation of 54 million, also known as Myanmar.
From Capitol Hill to Rangoon, the question is whether the Trump administration will continue to nurture Burma’s transition or turn its back at a crucial juncture.
“The country wants it. It gives them a sense of confidence,” Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Burma from 2012 to 2016, said of political support from Washington. “But the focus on things we care about, such as values and democracy and human rights, they don’t feel that with Trump. There’s a cost in losing all of that.”
Behind the scenes, Burma’s ambassador to Washington has been pressing the White House for more attention from high-level officials, a sign of Suu Kyi’s uncertainty about Trump’s public silence.
Trump aides emphasized that the president’s failure to contact her is not intended as a slight. On Friday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster hosted the Southeast Asian officials, including Burma’s representative, at the White House. Trump aides said the president, who was away at his estate in Bedminster, N.J., would have stopped by had he been in town.
The questions over Trump’s approach to Burma come as the administration is starting to formulate its broader policy stance toward Southeast Asia and what role the countries there may play in the U.S. effort to further isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically. Administration officials pointed to several signals in recent days that were intended to reassure the region that the White House would maintain a focus there even as it scrapped the Obama administration’s “Asia rebalance” policy aimed at deepening U.S. security and trade ties.
In Indonesia last month, Vice President Pence announced Trump would attend a trio of security and economic summits in Vietnam and the Philippines this fall.
Tillerson emphasized to the Southeast Asian officials that the administration would make a “sustained commitment” to the region, said W. Patrick Murphy, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia.
In a conference call with reporters, Murphy added that the administration’s relationship with Burma would be “enduring.”
In a separate interview, a senior White House official was more emphatic, emphasizing that Trump views Southeast Asia as “the most exciting component” in an emerging administration strategy for the broader Asia region.
This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s thinking, pointed to the combined population of more than 600 million among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their fast-growing economies as key reasons for sustained U.S. engagement.
The Trump aide jokingly referred to the countries as the “swing states of Asia.”
“This is a region that is fairly firmly rooted in a liberal order,” the aide said. “Some of those countries have — I wouldn’t call it a Jeffersonian democracy, but they’re facing in that direction. Burma is an amazing success story that we want to build on.”
Yet the administration’s failure to produce a coherent foreign policy strategy has alarmed members of Congress who fear Burma will be neglected or mishandled as the White House focuses on containing North Korea’s mounting nuclear weapons threat.
In his first meeting with Tillerson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him, “Don’t forget about Burma,” according to people familiar with the conversation.
But McConnell, who helped shepherd the U.S. economic sanctions that prodded Burma’s military regime toward reforms, has been left trying to piece together where the administration is headed from scant public or private signals.
A Senate Republican leadership aide said that as the administration attempts to coax Beijing to do more to change North Korea’s behavior, it is unclear where Burma, whose opening to the West was once viewed as a hedge against China’s economic and military muscle, fits in.
“It’s a work in progress,” the Senate aide said. “It’s going to be slow going.”
Experts said Southeast Asian capitals remain wary of Trump’s motives, even as they were encouraged by his commitment to attending the regional summits.
“There’s a lot of concern over the way they’ve been engaged,” said Ernest Z. Bower, a Southeast Asia analyst and business consultant affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Officials in the region view Trump as “very transactional,” Bower added, and they fear Trump is wooing them solely to build international support for his administration’s push to further isolate North Korea.
Murphy, the State Department official, said the Southeast Asian representatives proactively raised the issue of North Korea in their meeting with Tillerson.
“We have heard from countries that they are taking steps, looking at the size of North Korea’s diplomatic presence and activities and commercial transactions,” Murphy said. “North Korea’s provocations threaten the peace and prosperity of the entire region. . . . We think more can be done.”
But some experts said the risk is that the Trump administration would reduce the emphasis on free speech and human rights as it pursues security cooperation. For example, Trump invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose administration has overseen a ruthless extrajudicial campaign that has killed thousands of suspected drug dealers, to visit the White House.
In Burma, the military, which retains 25 percent of the seats in parliament under the constitution, has long had ties to North Korea, including buying arms from Pyongyang.
Erin Murphy, a former State Department official who accompanied then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a historic visit to Burma in 2011, said the Trump administration could seek to boost ties with the Burmese military as leverage against Pyongyang, an effort that could set back democratic reforms if not handled carefully.
“If you want to put the screws on North Korea — and the Trump administration has declared that a policy priority — you’d look at countries that are partners,” she said. “And if you look at that list, you would see Myanmar.”