Thein Sein Goes to Washington, China Goes to the Burmese Opposition

By Aung Zaw 18 May 2013

Next week Burmese President Thein Sein will make a state visit to Washington, where he will meet US President Barack Obama. The increasingly friendly relationship between both nations has surprised many, including China, Burma’s giant neighbor to the north.

Thein Sein will be the first Burmese head of state to visit the White House in nearly 47 years, while Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma when he came to Rangoon in November.

Burma is no longer a pariah state in the West, and as a result, alarm bells are going off in Beijing. China is now keenly observing Washington’s policy in Southeast Asia—and taking steps to ensure its own relevance in Burma remains intact.

Beijing is changing its strategy, opting out of isolation and proactively opening new doors by engaging with Burmese opposition groups. A few weeks ago China’s ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, held talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and last week he met three leading activists from the 88 Generation Students Group, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Jimmy.

According to informed diplomatic sources in Rangoon, the Chinese ambassador had a constructive meeting with Suu Kyi. Opposition sources said China reportedly donated money to the opposition leader and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

There seems to be a growing rapport between Suu Kyi and the Chinese government, which recently invited members of the NLD to visit Beijing.

In March a government-appointed commission led by Suu Kyi decided not to close the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division—a decision which caused an uproar among Burmese activists but won applause from Chinese investors and officials. The mine’s chief investor is Wanbao, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms firm Norinco, and its joint-venture partner is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a powerful military-owned conglomerate.

Before the decision, Suu Kyi held a meeting with the outgoing Chinese ambassador. Soon after the meeting, she was quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying: “We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not.” Suu Kyi’s role in the Letpadaung affair allowed her to send a message to Beijing—namely that if she comes to power after elections in 2015, Chinese interests will be protected.

Still, during her recent meeting with China’s ambassador, Suu Kyi tactfully said that Chinese investment and resource exploitation in Burma’s ethnic regions were to blame for a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the country.

The ambassador, Yang Houlan, who was previously posted in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and South Korea, reportedly faced stronger criticism in his meeting with the 88 Generation leaders.

Ko Ko Gyi told the Chinese ambassador that Burma should not become a battlefield between powerful nations, meaning the United States and China. The group said that anti-China sentiment in Burma had grown because Beijing supported the former illegitimate military regime. Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing also asked China to rewrite its contracts with Burma, which the activists criticized for currently lacking transparency and accountability.

The 88 Generation leaders clearly sent a message that China’s extractive businesses along the China-Burma border are devastating the livelihood of local Burmese people, and they called on Beijing to compensate those who have suffered from Chinese investment. “The people-to-people relationship is important,” Ko Ko Gyi stressed.

It’s interesting to note that the Burmese opposition and the Burmese government have found common ground on one issue, and that issue is China. Opposition activists and Thein Sein’s ruling party both know that Burma cannot depend solely on China, and for that reason, they both find US engagement appealing on many levels. Burma, they reason, should not miss a chance to counterbalance China’s growing influence.

As in the past, Burma can play one superpower against the other. But if the Burmese make it clear that they prefer “Made in America” over “Made in China,” it will be no surprise if relations with their northern neighbor suffer a severe hiccup.