Regional politics makes for strange bedfellows, and at first glance, it is hard to imagine more of an odd couple than tempestuous Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his cerebral de facto Myanmar counterpart, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who met Monday in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw. After his arrival in Myanmar on Sunday, Duterte rejected European criticism of his deadly war on drugs with his usual profanity, insisting that “more people will die.”
“I said I will not stop,” he declared. “I will continue until the last drug lord in the Philippines is killed and the pushers out of the streets.” Suu Kyi has just as little time for critics, but her crisp Oxford-accented speech is more like a dagger to her guest’s blunderbuss. The Philippines’ hard man thrives on press coverage, while Myanmar’s leader barely conceals her contempt for the media. She is the ice to Duterte’s fire.
The main purpose of Duterte’s visit to Myanmar is to complete visits to nine fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which the Philippines is helming this year. While their meeting is said to have included the usual pro forma talk about trade and investment, it had a tangible result when Duterte promised $300,000 in humanitarian aid for Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where communal conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.
Here is a look at two Southeast Asian leaders who have made a name for themselves worldwide:
AUNG SAN SUU KYI
As the daughter of Myanmar’s martyred founding father, Gen. Aung San, she is the closest thing the country has to aristocracy. Many would say her manner is aristocratic — imperious and uncompromising. For those around the world who admired her as a democracy icon, her government’s lack of transparency and less-than-wholehearted embrace of remedying human rights problems have been a disappointment.
Backstory: Suu Kyi had spent most of her life abroad as an academic until she found herself in Myanmar — then called Burma — during its 1988 pro-democracy uprising against military rule. When she stepped up to support the unsuccessful rebellion, her fresh face, name recognition and eloquence rocketed her to the leadership of the pro-democracy movement. It cost her 15 years under house arrest, won her a Nobel Peace Prize, and brought her National League for Democracy party to power in 2015.
Challenges: Suu Kyi’s biggest problem is probably meeting the expectations of her supporters in Myanmar and abroad. Myanmar’s economy lagged badly behind most of its neighbors after five decades of military rule. Widespread prejudice against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority has led to deadly communal violence, posing a political threat to Suu Kyi while earning international opprobrium. Other minorities are restive, seeking greater political autonomy promised since the nation became independent in 1948. All the while, provisions in the military-drafted constitution restrict Suu Kyi’s ability to make any reforms affecting the army’s considerable influence.
A foul-mouthed, crime-busting mayor credited with turning the southern Philippine city of Davao into an oasis of relative tranquility and economic vibrancy in an insurgency-pestered region, he expanded his brutal anti-drug crackdown when he rose to the presidency last June. Supporters cheer his anti-establishment and populist mindset but critics regard him as a human rights calamity.
Backstory: A former government prosecutor who dealt with rogue policemen, outlaws and insurgents, he parlayed that background to build a name in politics as a tough and hands-on overseer of a city who dealt harshly with law breakers, especially drug dealers and addicts, hundreds of whom ended up dead in Davao. His expletive-ridden speeches, often spiced with sex jokes, are adored by his followers but have unnerved the predominant Catholic church and the intelligentsia and upended Philippine politics and foreign policy.
Challenges: While seen as a tough and unorthodox leader who could break through an anemic bureaucracy and tradition to spark radical reforms, he faces the same deep-seated problems that have stymied his predecessors: crushing poverty that afflicts a fourth of more than 100 million Filipinos, decades-old Muslim and Marxist insurgencies, and often-turbulent politics. He is also unwinding his country’s traditional ties with the United States, while jousting with China over its rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.