Thein Sein Talks Investment, Kachin Conflict during China Visit

By Patrick Boehler 8 April 2013

HONG KONG—On Sunday Burmese President Thein Sein concluded his three-day visit to China, where he met the new Chinese President Xi Jinping and key business leaders to discuss Chinese investments in Burma and peace talks in the Kachin conflict.

On Friday, Thein Sein left for Sanya, a coastal tourism town in China’s southern province of Hainan, to attend this year’s Boao Forum, a summit for government and business leaders. He was welcomed with military honors by President Xi Jinping.

According to Chinese state media reports of the bilateral talks, Xi reiterated the statements he made during their meeting in autumn last year, stressing the importance of “assuring the smooth implementation of major cooperation projects.”

But he deviated from earlier talking points to say that the Sino-Burmese friendship should not “be disturbed by external forces,” an unusually direct statement that reflects China’s growing concern over Western influence in Burma.

During the country’s decades of isolation China was its main investor, but in recent years Chinese megaprojects have caused a backlash among the Burmese population. In the past few months, there have been repeated protests against a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Burma.

Xi also told Thein Sein that China supported the peace talks between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), adding that China was willing to “continue to play a constructive role” in solving the ethnic conflict on Burma’s northern border.

His statements came a day ahead of scheduled peace talks between the Burmese government and the KIO in the Kachin capital Myitkyina. However, the talks were cancelled on Friday without any explanation.

According to Kachin sources, the Burmese government suggested to move the venue of the talks from their previous location in the Chinese border town of Ruili to the Kachin State capital Myitkyina. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the Burmese government wanted to move the talks, as it had tired of Chinese mediators asserting their interests in the talks.

Naypyidaw has been fighting Kachin ethnic rebels, who are based on Burma’s mountainous northern border with China, since June 2011. From December to early February this year the fighting escalated, raising concerns in China that the conflict might spillover into its territory. The Chinese reacted by strengthening their security presence along the border.

Thein Sein assured Xi of his government’s willingness to advance the peace process in Kachin State and welcomed Chinese support for the talks, according to Chinese media reports. The president also said Burma would assist China in its ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Burma is scheduled to chair the regional bloc next year.

The president also invited Xi Jinping to visit his country. A visit by Xi, who assumed the Chinese presidency in last month, would be the first by a Chinese head of state since Jiang Zemin’s visit to Burma a decade ago.

After the meeting, the two delegations issued a joint communique in which China “affirmed Burmese sovereignty” and both sides agreed to “strengthen cooperation in border management.”

On Saturday, Thein Sein received Chinese delegations at the MGM Grand Hotel and discussed Chinese investments and tourism with the Hainan provincial Party Secretary Luo Baoming.

In other meetings, he discussed Chinese investment in two nickel mines in Mandalay Division and Chin State. Thein Sein also held talks about the China’s Kyaukpyu deep sea port in Arakan State and the upcoming completion of its oil and gas pipelines, which provides a strategic supply line connecting the Bay of Bengal with China’s southwestern region.

It is not known whether Thein Sein met with the Chairman of China Power Investment (CPI) Li Xiaolin, who also attended the Boao Forum. CPI is still hoping to resume the construction of the controversial Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, Wang Qiyue, the company’s lobbyist in Naypyidaw, told China Radio International on Friday.

On the last day of his visit, Thein Sein gave an inaugural speech at the Boao Forum, in which he focused on food and energy shortages in the region and the role that Burma could play in resolving these issues. “Burma’s prominent strategic position is proof that the development of Burma is important for the development of Asia as a whole,” he told the forum.

The event offered the Burmese government delegation a chance to meet with China’s newly appointed economic policy makers, such as the Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xu Shaoshi and Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng, who both assumed office last month.

Thein Sein travelled with a heavy delegation that included Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, Minister of the President’s Office Tin Naing Thein, Minister of Energy Than Htay, Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Kan Zaw, Minister of Mining Myint Aung and Deputy Minister of Health Win Myint.

On Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging platform, the comments about Thein Sein’s were positive, and some praised his government’s democratic reform agenda. “You are getting more and more away from the evil path of the past,” commented one person. “It’s a pity he didn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize,” wrote another.

“Let’s hope we can learn from Thein Sein’s constitutional experience,” one person quipped, pointing to the lack of implementation of fundamental rights in China that are formally guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.