Thein Sein Goes to Washington, China Goes to the Burmese Opposition

Next week Burmese President Thein Sein will make a state visit to Washington, where he will meet US President Barack Obama. The increasingly friendly relationship between both nations has surprised many, including China, Burma’s giant neighbor to the north.

Thein Sein will be the first Burmese head of state to visit the White House in nearly 47 years, while Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma when he came to Rangoon in November.

Burma is no longer a pariah state in the West, and as a result, alarm bells are going off in Beijing. China is now keenly observing Washington’s policy in Southeast Asia—and taking steps to ensure its own relevance in Burma remains intact.

Beijing is changing its strategy, opting out of isolation and proactively opening new doors by engaging with Burmese opposition groups. A few weeks ago China’s ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, held talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and last week he met three leading activists from the 88 Generation Students Group, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Jimmy.

According to informed diplomatic sources in Rangoon, the Chinese ambassador had a constructive meeting with Suu Kyi. Opposition sources said China reportedly donated money to the opposition leader and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

There seems to be a growing rapport between Suu Kyi and the Chinese government, which recently invited members of the NLD to visit Beijing.

In March a government-appointed commission led by Suu Kyi decided not to close the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division—a decision which caused an uproar among Burmese activists but won applause from Chinese investors and officials. The mine’s chief investor is Wanbao, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms firm Norinco, and its joint-venture partner is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a powerful military-owned conglomerate.

Before the decision, Suu Kyi held a meeting with the outgoing Chinese ambassador. Soon after the meeting, she was quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying: “We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not.” Suu Kyi’s role in the Letpadaung affair allowed her to send a message to Beijing—namely that if she comes to power after elections in 2015, Chinese interests will be protected.

Still, during her recent meeting with China’s ambassador, Suu Kyi tactfully said that Chinese investment and resource exploitation in Burma’s ethnic regions were to blame for a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the country.

The ambassador, Yang Houlan, who was previously posted in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and South Korea, reportedly faced stronger criticism in his meeting with the 88 Generation leaders.

Ko Ko Gyi told the Chinese ambassador that Burma should not become a battlefield between powerful nations, meaning the United States and China. The group said that anti-China sentiment in Burma had grown because Beijing supported the former illegitimate military regime. Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing also asked China to rewrite its contracts with Burma, which the activists criticized for currently lacking transparency and accountability.

The 88 Generation leaders clearly sent a message that China’s extractive businesses along the China-Burma border are devastating the livelihood of local Burmese people, and they called on Beijing to compensate those who have suffered from Chinese investment. “The people-to-people relationship is important,” Ko Ko Gyi stressed.

It’s interesting to note that the Burmese opposition and the Burmese government have found common ground on one issue, and that issue is China. Opposition activists and Thein Sein’s ruling party both know that Burma cannot depend solely on China, and for that reason, they both find US engagement appealing on many levels. Burma, they reason, should not miss a chance to counterbalance China’s growing influence.

As in the past, Burma can play one superpower against the other. But if the Burmese make it clear that they prefer “Made in America” over “Made in China,” it will be no surprise if relations with their northern neighbor suffer a severe hiccup.

6 Responses to Thein Sein Goes to Washington, China Goes to the Burmese Opposition

  1. What? Suu Kyi and her Party already bribed by the Chinese? LOL
    I should have predicted that. China uses the 2Y-strategy (Yuan and Y-chromosomes) together with the 2B-tactics (Bribery and Bullying) to control Burma as I have always said. The Burmese oligarchy (which includes Suu Kyi) is totally corrupt and is eager to suck up to the Chinese sugar daddies. Letpadaung farmers and other displaced people can go to Insein if they don’t like that! Let me ask a provocative question (Suu Kyi will defend my right to free speech, no?)
    Didn’t Suu Kyi herself caused all this mess with the Chinese because of her insistence on Western sanctions (while she was under “villa arrest with a chef”!) in her political fight against the junta (which she is now fond of?)? She never asked the same things from China or Singapore or even Thailand (China had a field day getting what they want from Burma by bribing and bullying the likes of Than Shwe and his cohort of gangsters) What kind of double-standards is that from an iconic “posh Lady” with a Congressional medal from the USA! Now she wants a medal from the Chinese? What a hypocrite! (you might not dare to publish what I said, but remember public figures )who even want to be President) have to accept criticism in a democracy or otherwise Suu Kyi’s “freedom from fear” slogan is just pure mumbo-jumbo)

  2. Well, that’s Realpolitik in action. China cannot afford to lose Burma. However, she was with the wrong group and now if she’s not tactful she will lose all the investments she has made so far including hedging the bets on the wrong horse. Daw Suu’s assessment was lenient when she said that we should honour the existing agreements with China whereas China knowingly made them with the military government who hasn’t got a shred of legitimacy. It’s a lose-lose situation for China if her attitude towards the so-called opposition do not change. As they used to say the enemy of my enemy, is my friend.

  3. Watch Henry Kissinger taking Thein Sein to a Yankees game; I bought Henry that hat for his birthday. The subsequent successful bids by ExxonMobil and Australian Woodside Petroleum did well, I expect a commission of 30 million Chinese Yuan in my ANZ account. Oh by the way Soros was never shorting the Australian Dollar he was simply changing Euros to Yuan.

  4. It is not difficult for rich China to re-write the business contracts if bama military thugs consider the benefit of all ethnics in the aspect of robbing of ethnics’ resources and lands for own businesses. Than shwe is and was shop owners and the buyers are China, Singapore, Thailand ,India and etc. In common law, the buyer have no legal implication although the selling products are illegal or faked or copied DVD, CD of movies and musical discs in 21st century and selling slave in ancient time. Than shwe and U Pei should give up their benefit or profit as well to reach the agreement of re-writing all business contracts. China should seriously consider the sake of all ethnics as well in those issues. China is not the only buyer in Than shwe’s shops. To be success, both sides (China , Than shwe and puppet thein sein) must be sincere as well as constructive manner. Delaying to start the all kinds of Businesses in Burma will affect ordinary people of Burma, not bama military thugs and not rich China. Highly politicize this issue will not solved this long standing problems easily. If so, Burma will be battle field very soon. Learn the lesson that local Muslim is the current victim from the consequences of impoverish ordinary Burmese in the manipulation or politicizing by paramilitary groups and its associates.

  5. An eagle and a tiger fighting over a sick peacock.

  6. China went to bed with SLORC(SPDC) for two decades. Now, China is trying to go to bed with NLD.

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