Is China Betting on a Suu Kyi Presidency?

By Echo Hui 17 January 2014

RANGOON — China seems to have softened its stance toward opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party amid a democratic transition in Burma that could see the former political prisoner one day elected president.

More visible efforts have been made by China in recent months to reach out to Burma’s biggest opposition party, which many expect will beat out the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in elections scheduled for 2015.

In December, a 10-member delegation from the NLD led by Nyan Win, the party secretary and a close confidant of party leader Suu Kyi, traveled to China at the invitation of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs, a semi-official Chinese organization.

The visit by the NLD members was the fourth of its kind last year, and came as both sides seek to enhance engagement ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015, according to analysts. Following the polls, the new Parliament will select Burma’s next president.

Chinese Ambassador to Burma Yang Houlan told The Irrawaddy this week that China stands ready to engage with all of Burma’s political parties, including the NLD, as long as they are willing to help further the sound development of relations with China. He also assured that China would continue to maintain inter-party exchanges with the NLD in future.

“Myanmar-Chinese friendship and cooperation will not change fundamentally, but the way to deal with it has to be reviewed as there are new actors involved,” said former Deputy Foreign Minister Khin Maung Win in a meeting on the recent developments of Burma’s reform last week. “Previously it was easy because there was only the government, but today we are practicing multi-party democracy.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state mouthpiece the Global Times published an interview with Yang on Oct. 21 of last year, in which the ambassador said his embassy would like to arrange a visit for Suu Kyi to China “at a convenient time for both sides.”

Though no concrete date has been set and Yang said Suu Kyi’s visit is “still out of the schedule,” the ambassador acknowledged that given her international profile and popularity among Burma’s people, an invitation from China was only a matter of time.

A retired deputy director general at Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kyee Myint, told The Irrawaddy that understanding sentiment toward China among the Burmese people was one of Beijing’s most important challenges. “The government of China has more capacity to control its own people, especially its business people, but China cannot control Myanmar’s people and their wishes,” he said.

Yang too stressed mutual respect between the two nations, adding that China would honor Burma’s democratic process and would not interfere in its internal affairs.

Suu Kyi has expressed a willingness to visit China in the past, but she has insisted that the invitation should come from the Chinese government. She has previously declined invitations that came from semi-official Chinese organizations.

The Burmese democracy icon Suu Kyi’s relations with China are a relatively new development. For decades, the Chinese government refrained from any formal contact with Suu Kyi or her party, with her strong pro-democracy stance at odds with China’s own record of human rights abuses under a one-party communist regime.

Burma has undergone seismic political changes since Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who sat at the top of the country’s military regime, officially stepped down to make way for his hand-picked successor, President Thein Sein. The latter took office in March 2011 and has since introduced democratic reforms to the nation’s formerly authoritarian political system.

Thein Sein early this year said he supported changing the country’s Constitution to allow “any citizen” to become president, an apparent reference to Suu Kyi, whose political ambitions are constrained by a military-drafted Constitution that bans her from running for president.

However, Than Shwe is considered to still wield influence among leaders of the quasi-civilian government, and the retired dictator in October was reportedly “concerned about the ongoing political process,” according to Shwe Mann, a member of the former regime and current speaker of Parliament. That, and a shrinking window in which to pass constitutional amendments that would then need to be ratified by a national referendum, have cast doubts on the viability of a Suu Kyi presidency.