Hillary Clinton's presidential tilt is now official. It comes as little surprise for most in the US but it is sure to have some effect in Myanmar, where Clinton, as Secretary of State, threw her lot behind the opening of the country.
As Myanmar's November elections near, there is increasing worry that the country is backsliding on its reforms. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who Clinton has supported vigorously, still faces an uphill battle to even run in her country's November election. Suu Kyi is currently barred by the constitution from running for the top job, and in order to contend, she needs a referendum on changes to the constitution. With the elections six months away, that's a tall order. More likely is that a referendum will be held after or at the same time as the elections.
If Suu Kyi can't run, many will see the elections as a failure. That could cause problems for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Myanmar is a core legacy of Clinton's term as Secretary of State. How does one spin Myanmar's reform slowdown and the likely no-show of Suu Kyi on the election ticket in November?
One way is to draw further away from Suu Kyi and closer to President Thein Sein or to Myanmar generally as a country in transition. When looking at Myanmar, the tendency in international press is to think of a country with one woman, the Nobel prize winning Suu Kyi, leading the process of opening and democratisation. That's not the case. While her role has been important in getting the country to this point, her inability to navigate Myanmar's minefield of social and political issues has diminished her domestic standing.
Yet there is no denying that Clinton has associated herself closely with Suu Kyi.
To great fanfare, Clinton met with Suu Kyi in 2011, in the first visit by a senior US government official to Myanmar in half a century. Clinton (and, interestingly, Laura Bush) co-chairs the Suu Foundation. To some extent, the two have been happy to cast themselves in each other's shadow: Clinton in that of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning freedom fighter and Suu Kyi in Hillary's image of a modern stateswoman.
Suu Kyi desperately needs Clinton's support. Suu Kyi's political standing has already diminished. Many of her supporters (both her strong Buddhist conservative backers and the human rights advocates) have criticised her handling of the Rohingya issue. She has wavered and remained mute on other important headline issues. Most problematic is that advocating too hard for the constitutional change that would allow her to run would make Suu Kyi look power hungry and self-interested. Yet if she doesn't advocate for the change, no one will. At some point soon, if the constitutional amendment doesn't go forward, she has to roll the dice and either boycott the elections or back another candidate while she sits on the sidelines.
The daughter of famed independence leader General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign, like Clinton's, is marked by family dynasty. For many in the country, including some in the armed forces, her father's legacy legitimises her right to the top job. That the US is considering a female candidate for the top job could act in Suu Kyi's favour. Many in Myanmar have a love affair with the US, as seen during Obama's visit last year. A country-wide survey last year by The Asia Foundation suggested that the Myanmar people are reluctant to elect a woman to power. But if the US is doing it, this may sway fence-sitters in Myanmar to do the same.
Given their shared interests, both women will be willing the other on.