Aung San Suu Kyi in China on debut diplomatic visit

Miro Guzzini , Wednesday 10 Jun 2015

The famous politician and human rights activist is in Beijing to discuss security and the future of economic ties. Many are hoping for a statement on human rights

Suu Kyi rally
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to her supporters (Source: Reuters)

Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Beijing on Wednesday for her first diplomatic visit to China. She is accompanied by a delegation from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is expected to perform very well in the country's elections in November, AFP reports. 

This visit might seem a little bizarre at first glance. China was the main supporter of Myanmar's military junta, especially during the period of Western sanctions that lasted until 2011. That same junta canceled an election in 1990 won by the NLD and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.

She remained in house arrest for most of the two following decades, in spite of winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and of international protests demanding her release, according to Reuters. She was finally released in 2010, and became a member of parliament in a by-election two years later.

In spite of her popularity, she cannot become president of the country because of a law barring citizens who have been married to foreigners from running, AFP reports. Suu Kyi's British husband died in 1999.

From her release onwards, Suu Kyi has always stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with China, and this visit underscores her wish to strengthen her political position in Myanmar.

China seems to be equally interested in developing ties with the famous human rights activist, as it considers Myanmar a strategically important gateway to the Indian Ocean, according to AP.

"We hope this visit will boost the mutual understanding and trust between the two parties and press ahead with practical cooperation between China and Myanmar," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said shortly before Suu Kyi's arrival, according to AFP.

A Chinese bid for influence

The visit thus seems largely motivated by political pragmatism on both sides. China's relations with Myanmar's government have become strained since 2011 and the ongoing democratisation of the country. The lifting of most Western sanctions and the opening up of the country to foreign investment poses a challenge to Chinese influence in Myanmar, especially with the ongoing outreach of the government to the United States, AFP reports.

This move has encouraged popular anti-Chinese sentiment, with several joint Chinese-Myanmar projects having been delayed or suspended due to political activists since 2011, AP writes.

Additionally, an insurgency in the eastern Kokang region has occasionally spilled over into the neighboring Chinese province of Yunnan. At least five people died when stray Myanmar army shells hit a town there in March, fuelling Chinese concerns according to Reuters.

Analysts expect these topics to dominate the visit's agenda. An NLD spokesman said Suu Kyi was scheduled to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping as well as the Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, on Thursday. The Chinese authorities have not released an itinerary, AFP reports.

Suu Kyi as a pragmatic revolutionary

The visit to China is another example of Suu Kyi's political pragmatism, a quality that has won her political influence yet could diminish her standing as a human rights activist. Suu Kyi has already been criticised for her reluctance to address the current migrant crisis in South East Asia affecting the marginalised Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, according to AFP.

Ahead of Wednesday's visit, many activists have pressured Suu Kyi to speak out publicly against the Chinese authorities' imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist imprisoned in 2009 on charges of subversion. Liu is also a Nobel Peace laureate, receiving the award in 2010, and is often compared with his Myanma counterpart.

"China's 'Aung San Suu Kyi' is still in jail!" wrote a Chinese microblogger called "Beisilang," Reuters reports.

A public statement by Suu Kyi would no doubt embarrass the Communist Party, yet the Chinese authorities have made clear that in any case, an appeal from her part would not be heeded. "There is no reason to alter the judgment made in accordance with the law by China's judicial organs," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Reuters.

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