Analysis

Myanmar Regime’s Cabinet Includes Some Old China Hands

By The Irrawaddy 29 March 2021

Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has not always seen eye-to-eye with the Chinese leadership, but he won’t mind setting aside those qualms if Myanmar finds itself facing isolation in the wake of his Feb. 1 coup; in fact he seems to have planned for just such a scenario.

Looking at the junta’s cabinet lineup, one finds a number of ministers who have long associations with the Chinese government and institutions.

One of them is the new minister for international cooperation, U Ko Ko Hlaing, who began cultivating strong ties in China’s Yunnan province shortly after his appointment as an adviser to President U Thein Sein’s government in the early 2010s.

Following the end of his term in 2015, U Ko Ko Hlaing took on a formal position as an adviser to Yunnan University’s Center for Myanmar Studies, working closely with Li Chenyang, who has long promoted closer ties between China and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw).

The Myanmar military regime’s newly appointed International Cooperation Minister U Ko Ko Hlaing in 2012.

Li, who graduated from a school under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the early 1990s, was one of three Yunnan-based strategists involved in developing plans for the Sino-Myanmar pipeline project in 2004. Li later became an advocate of the Yunnan “land bridge” and the “two oceans strategy” as a means of exploiting Myanmar to enhance Yunnan’s status among China’s western provinces. Li is known to have repeatedly called for closer ties between the PLA and the Myanmar armed forces, and is known for playing up the Tatmadaw’s fighting capabilities within Chinese policy circles, famously claiming that the Myanmar army could easily defeat the ethnic armed groups if it wanted to.

U Ko Ko Hlaing was named an adviser to the University’s Center for Myanmar Studies in 2016, a title he apparently maintains to this day. In this capacity, he has published a series of books in Chinese on Myanmar-China relations in collaboration with Yunnan University, one of which discusses why China must become the world’s leading power, and a second offering a series of case studies purporting to demonstrate how China has been a “responsible player” in Myanmar.

In 2018, his status in China was considerably enhanced when he took on a key task for the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China—authoring the Burmese-language version of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China,” which was launched at a government ceremony in Yangon in 2020. In October 2019, U Ko Ko Hlaing was interviewed by the Chinese Guangming Daily Newspaper. He discussed at length how his involvement in the project had convinced him of the importance of Myanmar “riding to prosperity on the train of Chinese development.” Prior to this, U Ko Ko Hlaing had been very vocal in the Chinese media, criticizing the NLD government for its handling of Chinese investment projects. In March 2019, he told Chinese Radio International that the “Myanmar government has wasted at least two years by reviewing the Muse-Kyaukphyu Railroad and the Kyaukphyu Port Projects…which are obviously win-win projects.” He went on to say that the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor would bring benefits to all of East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Beyond economics, U Ko Ko Hlaing has played a key role in legitimizing China’s moves vis-à-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan. In July 2020, he penned a long article in Burmese, which was published in translation by several Chinese media outlets, supporting Beijing’s position on the former British colony, arguing that it represents an effort to “use legal mechanisms, and keep the use of force to an absolute minimum as a means to restore security and order in Hong Kong.” He has also published multiple articles in Burmese and Chinese translation commending China on its handling of COVID-19 and pushing back against domestic criticism of China.

In a personal capacity, U Ko Ko Hlaing has played a significant role in promoting the interests of certain Chinese companies in Myanmar, including GAC Motors, a provincial-level state-owned Chinese manufacturer of automobiles. He has attended multiple promotional events on behalf of the company in Yangon.

Another member of the junta cabinet with notable ties to China is Minister for Foreign Affairs U Wunna Maung Lwin.

He served as foreign minister under President U Thein Sein. The former army officer has also served as director-general of the Ministry of Border Affairs as well as ambassador to Israel, France, Belgium and the EU from 2004 to 2007, and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. He is a key member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (UDSP). Former regime leader Senior General Than Shwe established the party’s predecessor organization, a mass association, in 1993 before registering it as a political party in 2010. The USDP contested the 2010 election and became the ruling party following a vote denounced by the international community as a sham.

The Myanmar military regime’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin talks to reporters as the foreign minister in 2012 during a press briefing on the situation in Rakhin State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office in Yangon.

Under the U Thein Sein government, U Wunna Maung Lwin was assigned to travel to China as a special envoy to smooth over relations following Myanmar’s suspension of the controversial China-funded Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State in October 2011.

He subsequently became the key fixer for the regime-installed government vis-à-vis its relations with Beijing. This included smoothing over ties with China after the accidental destruction of Chinese property when fighting in Kokang spilled over into Yunnan province in 2015. The foreign minister also worked with his counterparts in Asean—a role he reprised on his recent trip to Thailand, where he held a meeting with the Thai and Indonesian foreign ministers weeks after the military staged the coup.

In 2016, at Li’s invitation, the then former foreign minister visited China, where he gave a keynote lecture on China-Myanmar Relations at Yunnan University. Throughout 2016 and 2017, he was invited to deliver similar presentations at a number of other Chinese institutions, through which he promoted the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation platform and the proposed connectivity scheme linking China to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar.

U Wunna Maung Lwin remained active within the USDP and paid several visits to the Kokang Border Guard Force on the Myanmar-China border. He also gave interviews to the Chinese Guangming Daily news to promote China–Myanmar ties, emphasizing the USDP’s importance to the relationship.

It is also worth noting that newly appointed Minister of Electricity and Energy U Aung Than Oo is involved in a joint venture with the Jiangsu-based Great Wall Tomorrow High Tech Agriculture Company. Involved in agriculture and forestry, this company maintains a timber sales office in China.

The Myanmar military regime’s newly appointed Electricity and Energy Minister U Aung Than Oo talks in Parliament when he was deputy minister for electric power in 2015.

Last month, news emerged that an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist, Ari Ben-Menashe, had been recruited to represent the Myanmar junta internationally. He has downplayed the military coup in the country, claiming the generals will leave politics shortly.

“There’s a real push to move toward the West and the United States, as opposed to trying to get closer to the Chinese,” Ben-Menashe said. “They don’t want to be a Chinese puppet.”

In light of the junta’s past ties with China and its inclusion of handpicked cabinet members with longstanding connections to Beijing, however, his comment doesn’t make much sense.

 

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