Following Suu Kyi’s Footsteps, Ethnic Politicians Set to Visit China

By Khin Oo Tha 18 June 2015

RANGOON — Less than a week after Burma’s most popular politician returned from her first visit to China, eight lawmakers from a handful of the country’s ethnic minority groups will also make the trip to meet Chinese politicians and economists.

At the invitation of Yunnan University, the parliamentarians are set to hold talks with Chinese authorities about feedback collected from local people on projects with Chinese backing in Burma. The delegation departing on Friday is comprised of lawmakers from regions where many of those projects are being implemented.

National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi returned from a weeklong visit to China on Sunday, with leader of Burma’s largest opposition party meeting President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders.

Dwe Bu, an ethnic Kachin lawmaker who will be part of the delegation, predicted that the meetings were likely to lay bare disagreements over a major Chinese hydropower project in his state that the Burmese government has suspended.

“China may want to resume the Myitsone dam project as it has invested a substantial amount in it. But we would like to terminate it rather than [merely] suspending.”

The proposed Myitsone project would put a massive hydroelectric dam at the site of two rivers in Kachin State that merge to form the Irrawaddy River. Burma’s former military regime signed an agreement with Beijing allowing China to develop the dam, with all the power generated from the dam destined for China.

But in September 2012, Burma’s President Thein Sein announced that he was suspending construction for the duration of his term of office, following widespread opposition to the project.

The ethnic delegation will also discuss the impacts of other China-backed projects such as the Shwe natural gas and oil pipelines, which begin in western Arakan State and extend 500 miles through 21 townships in Burma before crossing into China’s Yunnan province. The controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division is also on the agenda.

Arakanese lawmaker Ba Shein, also part of the delegation, said he would discuss the social impacts of the Shwe pipelines on locals in Kyaukphyu Township, Arakan State.

Nearly all of the major China-backed projects across Burma are facing opposition from local populations, and the ethnic Shan lawmaker Ye Htun speculated that Chinese officials might be seeking to bolster relations with opposition and ethnic minority lawmakers in Burma to improve perceptions of Chinese influence on its southern neighbor.

“In the past, the bilateral relationship was limited to g-to-g [government to government] relations. But now, as Myanmar is undergoing a democratic transition, China might want develop cordial relations with personalities from various fields, I reckon,” he said.

Ethnic lawmakers, and the NLD, are likely to be better represented in the halls of power after Burma’s general election in November, when the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is expected to lose ground to both.

Perhaps recognizing the potential for a changing of the guard in Burma, Beijing has reached out to the NLD in recent years, with a delegation from the party visiting China for the first time in late 2013. Last week’s Suu Kyi visit was at the invitation of the Communist Party of China.

The ethnic delegation visiting this week consists of Dwe Bu and Zone Thein from Kachin State, Ba Shein and Khin Saw Wai from Arakan State, Kan Nyunt from Sagaing Divison, Mi Myint Than from Mon State, and Sai Maung Tin and Ye Htun from Shan State. They are set to visit Beijing, Kunming and Shanghai on the weeklong trip.