Myanmar Military Chief Praises China as ‘Trusted Friend Forever’

By Nan Lwin 9 December 2019

YANGON—Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing praised China as a “trusted friend forever,” saying that the Myanmar military will give its full support to develop strategic cooperation between the two countries, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar.

During a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi in Mandalay on Sunday, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said China is Myanmar’s “pauk-phaw” brother and “trusted friend forever”, adding that he will support the Myanmar government to establish new goals around a comprehensive strategic partnership with China.

“Pauk-phaw” is a term coined in the 1950s to describe the supposedly friendly and close relationship between China and Myanmar.

When Myanmar was under military dictatorship, China was Myanmar’s only major international partner and it has been the major supplier of military hardware to Myanmar since 1988. Currently, China plays a major mediation role in the Rohingya repatriation process between Myanmar and Bangladesh and in the peace process with ethnic armed groups in the Northern Alliance. Beijing continues to offer strong support to Myanmar despite accusations that the treatment of the Rohingya has amounted to genocide and war crimes.

The senior general said that the Myanmar military will also support “speeding up” cooperation on China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and “earnestly promote” the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

The BRI, a signature project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a grand vision to revive the historic Silk Road trade route and create a “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.” It would create a network of trade routes from China to Europe passing through Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia. Unveiled in 2013, the BRI will ultimately encompass nearly 70 countries and two-thirds of the world’s population.

After signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the CMEC in September last year, Myanmar officially became a partner in the BRI.

In Myanmar, the CMEC will stretch for 1,700 km, starting in China’s Yunnan Province and going through Myanmar’s major economic cities—Mandalay in central Myanmar and the commercial capital of Yangon—and reaching the coast of the Bay of Bengal at the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State.

Under the CMEC, Myanmar has also signed a framework agreement for the Kyaukphyu deep sea port, a planned hub for Chinese trade that would give direct access to the Indian Ocean and allow China’s oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca, between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The CMEC also serves Beijing’s goal of developing landlocked Yunnan.

Critics have warned that a key piece of the CMEC, the Muse-Mandalay railway, could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict. But following an MOU with the Myanmar government, Chinese company China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (China Railway Group Ltd) has already completed a feasibility study for the railway. The company is currently finalizing an environmental impact study report.

The railway could become a lifeline for China-Myanmar trade. Muse sits on Myanmar’s border with Yunnan and is the largest trade portal between the two nations, while Mandalay is central Myanmar’s commercial center and the country’s second-largest city.

In Yangon, the multi-billion-dollar New Yangon City project is also a part of the CMEC plan. The two governments have also agreed to implement three economic cooperation zones along their shared border in Kachin and Shan states.

Wang, who is also foreign minister, visited Naypyitaw and Mandalay from Dec. 7-8 at the invitation of Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

He told Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing that Myanmar’s armed forces are important in safeguarding national peace and stability and China-Myanmar friendship.

Wang said China is willing to treat the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries next year as an opportunity to work with the Myanmar government and armed forces to carry forward “the traditional friendship” and “speed up the construction of the CMEC.”

Wang also said the process of peace and reconciliation in northern Myanmar is of great significance to Myanmar’s economic and social development and long-term stability.

The Chinese state councilor said he hopes the Myanmar government and military will continue to engage in political dialogue with ethnic armed groups and advance peace talks.

Since 2017, China has been acting as an official peace broker between the military and members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), an organization that includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Fighting has intensified in northern Shan State following attacks in August by three members of the Northern Alliance—the TNLA, AA and MNDAA—on a military training academy and several police and security outposts in and around Pyin Oo Lwin Township and Naung Cho Township. China’s Foreign Ministry has criticized the attacks, saying they derail the country’s peace process and create instability in the region.

Recent fighting in Shan and Kachin states has broken out in areas where China and Myanmar have agreed to develop major infrastructure projects, including the trade zones and railways under BRI.

Wang stressed that the two sides should strengthen control and cooperation in border areas, earnestly ensure peace and stability along the border between China and Myanmar, and safeguard the security and legitimate rights and interests of people in border areas.

Wang also said that, as always, China will maintain close communication with Myanmar and play a constructive role in pursuing peace and promoting talks. He said he hoped that all parties will continue to exercise restraint, maintain the ceasefire situation and sign a ceasefire agreement soon.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said the Myanmar military will actively carry out dialogue with the ethnic armed organizations and speed up the peace process in northern Myanmar.

According to a source close to the Myanmar government, both sides are planning to hold an informal meeting in Yunnan during the second week of December.

At their most recent meeting in the second week of September, mediated by China, the Myanmar government and Northern Alliance members agreed in principle on seven points of a draft bilateral ceasefire, including commitments to end the current fighting, plans for further bilateral ceasefire negotiations and pledges from all groups to cooperate on the rehabilitation and return of displaced people to their homes.

Since 2017, China has officially played a mediation role between Myanmar and Bangladesh as well. In April, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing praised China as an “eternal friend” and thanked the Chinese during a visit to Beijing for countering international pressure on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis. During the same trip, he visited a training school for the People’s Liberation Army, as China’s military is known, observed military simulation training and visited a center featuring experimental support technology.

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