Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi makes awkward visit to China

Fighting with rebels on Burma’s border with China places strain on relations

Amid tensions between the two countries, Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi began her visit to China on Wednesday, although there were few details given about her agenda.

During her visit, which runs until June 14th, Ms Suu Kyi will meet China's president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang. Her visit is unlikely to be an entirely comfortable one, as she is a leading opposition figure not a head of state, rendering the visit a snub to the government of Burma (Myanmar), which is currently in transition from military dictatorship.

Relations between China and Burma are tense because the Burmese government has been fighting with rebels in the country's eastern Kokang region, which borders China's Yunnan province. At least five people in Yunnan died in March when a Burmese aircraft dropped a bomb on a sugar cane field.

Ms Suu Kyi became an international symbol for peaceful resistance after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and spent most of the next two decades under house arrest where she continued to resist military rule. She was freed in 2010.


Awkward matter

There is also the awkward matter of a visit by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to a country where her fellow recipient

Liu Xiaobo

is in jail for spreading a reformist petition, and during a widespread crackdown on dissent by Mr Xi.

The Beijing government was a close ally of Burma when it was still a rogue state under the rule of the military junta, but relations have become strained since the junta rebranded itself as a reformist administration in March 2011.

In that year, much to Chinese annoyance, Burma’s president Thein Sein suspended the unpopular Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River, which was being built by Chinese companies and would have supplied electricity mostly to Yunnan province.

Beijing is clearly trying to build up leverage ahead of the general election in November, which will be the first free vote in Burma in more than a quarter century and in which Ms Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, is expected to do very well, even though she herself is not allowed to rule.

‘Overwhelming influence’

“Given Suu Kyi’s pragmatic and friendly attitude toward China, her overwhelming influence among the Myanmese [Burmese] and her significant power in the future landscape of the Myanmese politics, China treats her visit as a chance to lay out its diplomatic strategies, a forward-looking move to deal with the result of the upcoming Myanmese election,” said an editorial in the Chinese

Global Times

newspaper, by Bi Shihong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Yunnan University.

China’s state news agency Xinhua said in an editorial that the invitation extended to Suu Kyi was proof the Chinese Communist Party “stands ready to engage with any political parties as long as they are willing to promote the sound development of relations with China”.

“There is also a reminder: China has no intention to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs, but is determined to protect its citizens from being caught in a war launched from the other side of the border,” it said.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing