Among other things, the China trip is also about Aung San Suu Kyi making a transition from being a champion of democracy to the realpolitik world
When a global icon of democracy visits China—not exactly known for its democratic credentials understandably—all heads turn.
Precisely so, on the heels of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s maiden visit to China (she leads Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, NLD), her first since she was released from house arrest in 2010. It materialised on an invite from the Communist Party of China (CPC), with official media Xinhua professing that the party welcomes all: “the same ideology, but also those with a different political vision.” Ironic, as “China’s Aung San Suu Kyi is still in jail”—a microblogger back home wrote. Homegrown Chinese Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is languishing in house arrest since 2009. Liu championed the controversial Charter 08, a plea for political reforms in the country. It seems China has weighed pragmatics in favour, and so it seems has Suu Kyi.
China can hardly ignore the importance of being Suu Kyi. Though Myanmar’s state-backed New Light of Myanmar kept uncharacteristically mum about Suu Kyi’s visit this time, in China she has met with at the highest level—President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi—according the respect reserved for a national leader. On the other hand, Suu Kyi can hardly ignore that China and Myanmar share a 1,300-km-long border (shorter than India-Myanmar’s 1,640 km), China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner (India is the fifth-largest) and the largest investor with cumulative investments of $14 billion in 2014.
For China, the visit came at an opportune year. The sixth general elections are slated for November (previously, elections were held in 1951, 1956, 1960, 1990 and 2010); campaigning will begin in September. Most will recollect that Suu Kyi’s NLD won the elections in 1990, but was barred from taking office. The 2010 elections saw low voter turnout (though Myanmar’s state media claimed the contrary) and because there prevailed a less-than-level playing field, the NLD boycotted the elections. The Chinese hope to get their math right: the NLD’s time may have come.
Though a ban prevents Suu Kyi from becoming the President (provision 59(f) of the 2008 constitution blocks anyone whose spouse/children are overseas citizens), there is little doubt she will continue to reshape domestic politics as a potential kingmaker and, in the bargain, give the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party a run for its money.
Suu Kyi, an alumnus of Delhi University, can hardly ignore a powerful China. Both Myanmar and China have a professed ‘pauk-phaw’ relations (fraternal relations like Sino-Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friendship’). Given that Myanmar has the lowest GDP in Southeast Asia, around $450 per capita at market exchange rates, a large fiscal deficit and the highest inflation (around 20% in 2010), there is little doubt of the economic considerations that have to be factored in.
In such a dispensation of things, China comes in. Myanmar has attracted little FDI, given that it was a ‘pariah’ state ignored by the West for years. China remains the largest investor because it has a stake: Chinese emigration into Myanmar has a long history (from the country’s southern borders—Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian) and is high.
Myanmar ranks among the top-10 destinations for emigration by the Chinese (topping the list is Indonesia).
Unofficial sources attest that 2-2.5 million Chinese (of the estimated 35 million overseas Chinese) live in Myanmar.
Today, Myanmar has five Chinese language papers and the Myanmar Chinese Chamber of Commerce reopened in 2011. The trade route between Myanmar and China is fairly established from Yunnan to Myanmar’s Shan state. As a result of the border trade (and illegal trade), Yangon and Mandalay markets have plenty of China-made goods. It is said that Mandalay, which caught poet Rudyard Kipling’s lilting fancy as “of palm trees and temple bells”, is now wistfully said to be a ‘Chinese town’.
Local critics have slammed China’s business interests as a marriage of convenience. China’s investments in extractive industries such as hydroelectricity, natural gas and lumber mines have gathered flak. A key project, the $2.5 billion, 2400-km-long Shwe Gas pipeline backed by the China National Petroleum Corp, commenced in January 2015. Shwe is an oil-gas pipeline estimated to carry 12 million tonnes of crude oil and 12 billion cubic meters of gas from Kyaukphyu (Rakhine state in south Myanmar) to Kunming (Yunnan). Reports say that China has promised $53 billion in royalties over the next 30 years and earmarked $25 million for development. A $20-billion railway joining the two places is also on the anvil.
Moreover, China’s ambitions and patronage have to be managed. The controversy at the Letpadaung mining project in Monywa district (central Myanmar) was a delicate balancing act for both Myanmar and Suu Kyi. The mine, jointly owned by a Chinese company, Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper (a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer, Norinco) and the business arm of Myanmar military, known as the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, led to a Commission of Inquiry (2012) headed by Suu Kyi. Investigations revealed the scale of land seizure—8,000 acres and 26 villages—but the Commission did not recommend its closure. Instead, it recommended compensation to farmers using market prices and return of nearly 2,000 acres to farming.
The second project is lurking in the woods. The $3.6-billion Myitsone hydroelectric power project in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state (below the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers) was being jointly developed by the China Power Investment Corp and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power. If completed, it would have been the 15th largest dam in the world. Environmentalists were outraged as 766 sq km of land and 63 villages would have been submerged. Taking stock, Myanmar President Thein Sein took a stance: halting the project until the end of his term.
It is interesting to note that the NGO, Burma Rivers Network, has claimed that China is eyeing ‘to restart the work’.
A ‘diversity of militant and non-ceasefire groups’ exist along Thailand, Bangladesh and Indian borders. The Chinese border with Myanmar is no exception and stranger to the tangles (as much as the Indian army’s foray into Burmese soil earlier this month indicated the complexity of managing porous borders). In March this year, a bomb from a Myanmar aircraft killed four Chinese in Yunnan; stray shells too have caused damage.
The north-eastern part of Myanmar, the Shan state, shares border with south-west Yunnan province of China, meeting at an important border crossing—the town of Ruili. Shan is deemed the centre of the Golden Triangle drug trade, with a much chronicled practice of ‘drugs for the army and army of drugs’. Shan is known for its drug mafia and has witnessed instability and insurrection in Kokang (special region, the capital is Laukkai), peopled by an ethnic Chinese minority. There are periodic clashes between the Kokang rebels who operate on both sides of the border. On June 11, clashes between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army led by ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng and the government reached a ceasefire, believed to have been forced by Beijing. While this is ample proof of Beijing’s clout, it also indicates the tensions spilling over to the Chinese side. Refugees (and now bombs) from Kokang are travelling into China.
With so much at stake, from border issues to refugees to drug trade to economics, the twain must cooperate. China has played its card well and so has Suu Kyi (who refrained from commenting on Liu). Both the dragon and the democrat had no issues being in the same place and being silent about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims (in Rakhine state), an issue the global community of Suu Kyi admirers expected her to articulate—Suu Kyi obviously has the Buddhist vote-bank to mind in Myanmar. Wistful as it sounds, the China trip was also about Suu Kyi making the transition from being a ‘champion of democracy’ to the realpolitik world of Myanmar and Asia.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi