Suu Kyi puts pragmatism first in China diplomacy

Published on August 15, 2016

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Nikkei Asian Review –¬†August 15, 2016

Myanmar’s State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to make a four-day visit to China from Aug. 17. Because of her de facto leadership status, Suu Kyi is likely to be received as a head of state and meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keying.

Suu Kyi is expected to discuss a broad range of topics with the Chinese leaders, including Myanmar’s policy toward Beijing, trade and other forms of economic cooperation.

The visit is significant in a number of ways.

This will be Suu Kyi’s first visit to a foreign country outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since her National League for Democracy came to power in April this year.

Second, the visit comes days before Myanmar’s planned high-level peace talks among ethnic armed groups, the government and the military — entitled the 21st Century Panglong conference — under Suu Kyi’s leadership. The talks are scheduled to begin on Aug. 31. Achieving peace and national reconciliation in Myanmar is one of the most important goals of the NLD government.

The conference is designed to echo an historic gathering held in the northern Myanmar town of Panglong in 1947. The Panglong agreement served as the foundation on which the Union of Burma was founded by Aung San, the independence hero and late father of Suu Kyi, and representatives of the frontier people — Chin, Kachin and Shan.

This time, Suu Kyi and her NLD government understand that Myanmar needs the support and cooperation of China for the success of the upcoming peace conference.

Suu Kyi’s visit is timely amid new overtures by her government to three armed organizations — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army. The three groups have fought the Myanmar army along their shared border with China.

On previous occasions, the Myanmar military not only excluded the three armed groups but insisted that they surrender their weapons as a condition of signing the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and for participating in the political dialogue process.

The exclusion of the three armed groups by the previous Thein Sein government was the primary reason for the failure of the peace process. Because of the government’s exclusive policy, several armed organizations under the umbrella of the United Nationalities Federal Council refused to sign the NCA in October last year.

The government’s peace negotiating team alleged that some armed groups did not sign the ceasefire agreement due to interference from China, which Beijing denied.

The fact that the Kokang people are ethnically Chinese and that the MNDAA — which launched a fresh campaign against Myanmar’s military in 2015 — is led by an ethnic Chinese, underscore the crucial role of China in Myanmar’s peace process. The importance of China has been recognized by Myanmar as well as the armed groups, as evidenced by the participation of a Chinese government representative in peace-related meetings.

Third, Suu Kyi’s visit comes roughly a month before her visit to the U.S. in mid-September. This precedence can be construed as a diplomatic victory for China given its close ties with the former military junta that for decades suppressed alternative voices, particularly those of the democratic opposition led by Suu Kyi herself.

Over the years when Suu Kyi and her democratic opposition groups campaigned for the restoration of democracy, it was China which often came to the rescue of the Myanmar military junta. Along with Russia, China exercised its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to block a draft resolution on Myanmar in January 2007.

It was the first use of multiple vetoes at the Security Council since 1989. The draft resolution called on Myanmar to release all political prisoners, begin widespread dialogue with opposition groups and end its military attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.

When the NLD formed the first civilian government in decades, Western governments eased sanctions and began to engage with Myanmar. There was speculation that the new government would end or reduce its heavy dependence on China or even wind back diplomatic ties with China.

Fourth, Bejing is likely to use Suu Kyi’s visit to attempt to persuade Myanmar, as an ASEAN member, to support its position in international disputes over its maritime claims in the South China Sea. On July 12, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against these Chinese claims.

Suu Kyi’s acceptance of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s invitation to visit, made during the ASEAN meeting in Laos at the end of July, is an indication that she wants to pursue a pragmatic approach in spite of her unhappy feelings toward China during the years of her struggle for human rights and democracy in Myanmar.

It could also be interpreted as evidence that Suu Kyi is downplaying her former role as a democratic icon and a champion of human rights by recalibrating herself as a pragmatic politician.

While her approach may serve as a boon to bilateral relations between Myanmar and China, founded on a personal willingness to overlook China’s backing of the previous regime, there continues to be an expectation from rights activists and democrats around the world that Suu Kyi should speak up for their cause.

She is unlikely to do so during her upcoming visit to China, and Beijing is anyway not eager that such issues should be raised publicly.

Things are likely to be different when Suu Kyi visits the U.S. in September. The continued human rights challenges in Myanmar, including the plight of the Muslim minority Rohingya, are highly likely to be raised by the Obama administration, members of Congress and the media. But even in the U.S., Suu Kyi looks set to address these issues as the politician she now is, and not as the human rights activist she was in former years.

Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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