Analysis

Talking to Dead People: What Did China’s Envoy Learn in Myanmar’s Capital?

By The Irrawaddy 2 September 2021

Sun Guoxiang’s recent visit to Myanmar ended discreetly. Beijing said on Tuesday that its special envoy for Asian affairs had been in Myanmar from Aug. 21 to 28 at the invitation of the regime. He met with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Minister for Foreign Affairs U Wunna Maung Lwin and Minister for the Union Government Office Lieutenant General Yar Pyae. The regime denied his request to meet with detained ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, however.

Interestingly, the regime has remained tightlipped about the visit. Normally, the presence of such a high-profile foreign dignitary in Myanmar would be front-page news in the junta’s dailies, but it was the Chinese side that eventually revealed the trip. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a press conference on Tuesday that the special envoy “exchanged views with [regime officials] on the political landscape in Myanmar and China-Myanmar cooperation in combating COVID-19.”

The most interesting message from China regarding the visit came later in Wang’s statement, when he stressed, “We will work together with the international community to play a constructive role in Myanmar’s efforts to restore social stability and resume democratic transformation at an early date.”

It was the last remark—“to resume democratic transformation at an early date”—that caused Myanmar observers’ ears to prick up.

During his meetings with junta officials, it is believed Sun also raised border security issues. Fighting between regime troops and ethnic armed groups in the northern and northeastern parts of the country near the Chinese border has intensified recently. Regime leaders remain suspicious of China’s covert support for insurgents on the border.

In his meeting with Lt-Gen Yar Pyae, the two sides discussed the issue of ethnic insurgents in the north. It is likely that, as it has in the past, China will provide a venue to hold talks between ethnic armed groups and the military junta.

Playing it safe 

Since the coup, Myanmar’s giant and powerful neighbor China has played an active role in the Myanmar crisis, asking regional grouping ASEAN to play a mediator role. The visit to Myanmar by the bloc’s special envoy remains in limbo for various reasons, though he recently held a virtual meeting with activists and scholars who fled the country to escape political repression.

In May, Zhang Jun, China’s UN ambassador, urged stronger diplomatic efforts to resolve the chaos that has engulfed Myanmar since the Feb. 1 military coup, warning that further violence could lead to a deterioration in the situation “and even a civil war.”

Calling Myanmar “a friendly neighbor,” Zhang said China strongly backed diplomatic efforts by ASEAN.

“We should really be creating a more favorable environment for bringing the country back to normal and finding a political solution through dialogues among the relevant political parties within the constitutional and legal framework,” he said.

According to diplomatic sources, however, in Naypyitaw, Sun was surprised by the degree of hostility displayed by Min Aung Hlaing toward the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ousted ruling party that many believe is facing possible dissolution. Moreover, the Chinese were taken aback by the junta’s hatred for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“He was very upset to learn of the junta’s hardline stance toward the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi,” said a diplomat in Yangon.

Stonewalling

The Myanmar military has not released any official statement on Sun’s visit. A source close to the junta said the envoy was “tactful” in engaging the regime leader, but according to unconfirmed reports Min Aung Hlaing was upset to hear from the Chinese envoy that Beijing still views Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as an important, necessary figure.

Before Sun’s visit, The Irrawaddy published a report indicating that China had asked the junta not to dissolve the NLD. Chinese officials have conveyed to the regime’s leaders Beijing’s message that it wants to see the NLD continue to exist as a political party, they said.

Soon after the regime ousted Myanmar’s elected government in February, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency described the military’s seizure of power by force of arms as a “cabinet reshuffle.” Since then, anti-China sentiment in Myanmar has hit fever pitch due to Beijing’s failure to condemn the military crackdown and the mounting perception that it has fully sided with the junta.

Myanmar has seen anti-China demonstrations, and factories owned and run by Chinese companies have been attacked. China’s image has been shattered and will be hard to repair in the eyes of Myanmar citizens, who deeply loathe the military junta.

The key takeaways from Sun’s visit are that China encouraged Myanmar “to resume democratic transformation at an early date”, and that the envoy’s request to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was declined, though the regime may decide to hold talks on Chinese soil with several armed ethnic insurgent groups based in the north of Myanmar.

Sun has returned to Beijing to report what he saw and discussed in Naypyitaw. One thing should be clear to him by now, as it has long been clear to the neighboring Thais and others: Myanmar people are not good at negotiating—the word “compromise” is seemingly not in the dictionary. To quote the late Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s characterization of dealing with a previous Myanmar military regime, talking to the generals “is like talking to dead people.”


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