When Xi met Suu Kyi: the genocide proves no obstacle while China embraces Myanmar

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Then came the exodus of almost 1 million Rohingya Muslims, expelled from their homes by the Myanmar army in a ravaged land campaign that sparked a Western protest and genocide charges. Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate, led Myanmar’s defense in the International Court of Justice last month; A provisional ruling is expected next week.

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping landed in Myanmar on Friday, almost 20 years after his government’s last state visit there, he hoped to send a clear signal that his country is back in the driver’s seat. After supporting Myanmar, also known as Burma, while Western nations backed down from their atrocities against the Rohingya, Xi is prepared to capitalize on reviving stalled strategic projects, especially a Chinese port and a special economic zone, which would deepen Beijing’s reach in the Indian Ocean.

The method is familiar to Beijing: where the West adopts a moral stance or withdraws, China’s communist leaders intervene with their own promises, goodies and demands in search of a strategic advantage.

“China declares that it has regained its position in Burma and repaired its damaged influence,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “This, of course, happened in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. Burma is receiving a superior visit at a time when it has returned to the pariah state in the eyes of the rest of the international community. “

An article in the Global Times, the nationalist tabloid led by the state of China, expressed it more clearly, describing Myanmar as briefly “derailed” when it courted the West.

“But after some turbulence, Myanmar realized that there was a double standard in the approach that Western countries had taken on human rights issues and began to turn to China for diplomatic and economic help,” the article said, citing to an expert who described China as “willing to take Myanmar out of the mud.”

The ruling party of the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Myanmar, which runs the country with still powerful military, has accepted overture and expressed gratitude for the state visit. As the country prepares for the provisional ruling of the international court, Xi’s visit represents a strong gesture of “moral support,” said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt.

“We can assume, as a good friend, [China] He comes to us to support us morally, ”he said. “We are an eastern country, as is China, so they understand our situation more than others.”

It is a position that Myanmar generals had hoped to avoid. The army has always suspected China’s role in financing ethnic armed militias inside Myanmar and distrusts the excessive dependence of its giant neighbor.

Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces, traveled the world (India, Russia, Serbia, Pakistan, Germany and Austria) in the years after the country returned to the nominally civil government after 2015, with the Hope to diversify relationships and inject professionalism in the country. armed forces. This became more difficult after Rohingya atrocities led to visa bans and travel restrictions for some in the Myanmar army, also known as Tatmadaw, even against Min Aung Hlaing.

“Myanmar is almost as nationalistic as others in the region,” said Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Southeast Asia and author of an upcoming book on China and Southeast Asia.

“They don’t want to be a client state of China,” he added. “The Tatmadaw is not impressed with this.”

Randall Schriver, who until last month was the main Pentagon official in Indo-Pacific security matters, said that even in their limited interactions with the Myanmar army, US defense officials “certainly received the message that the [Tatmadaw] I wanted a better relationship with the USA. UU. and a strong defense relationship. “

The United States “echoed that only as an aspiration,” said Schriver, now president of the Project 2049 Institute, a group of experts focused on Asia.

“They made quite inspiring presentations for us and were not willing to take any responsibility for the atrocities, explaining them as if they were legitimate counter-terrorism operations,” he said in an interview.

“It may be the case that this creates some opportunities for China, but, when evaluating policy options and how we should position ourselves, the United States is not interested in ignoring these massive atrocities.”

When Xi landed on Friday afternoon in the capital of Myanmar, Naypyidaw, schoolchildren lined up on the roads, waving flags of Myanmar and China, and representatives of ethnic minorities performed a traditional dance.

During its two-day visit, Xi is expected to drive progress in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a project under the China Strip and Highway Initiative that includes railroads, economic zones and other infrastructure, including a water port deep in Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal. The location of the port near the main navigation routes allows China to avoid the most vulnerable straits of Malacca and gain a foothold in a region of growing strategic competition.

Xi will meet with Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader, and Suu Kyi.

The Chinese authorities have also played their part in securing an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya refugees more than two years after they were taken to miserable camps. (Very few have accepted the offer).

On Thursday, Myanmar’s state newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar, published a comment by Xi that promised to renew the “pauk-phaw” or fraternal ties with the Southeast Asian country. He wrote about the need to give more “momentum” to economic cooperation and accelerate Belt and Road projects.

Even so, experts say that Myanmar is far from a total hug from China and that Xi’s visit will not overlook a relationship spoiled by distrust, particularly by the military. Activists are also planning a protest on Saturday in front of the Chinese embassy against what they say is the exploitation of their country’s resources by Beijing.

Suu Kyi’s NLD party, although close to officials in Beijing, is also very welcome by Western nations and maintains close ties with US lawmakers, which gives Myanmar options that it did not have when the country was under sanctions American economic.

“Myanmar will not return to the pocket of China,” said Sun of Stimson. “The Burmese and NLD government is using the American acquiescence and the Chinese desire to gain influence in Myanmar for their own benefit.”

Diamond reported from Yangon, Myanmar.

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