Monday, June 15, 2009

China Must Get Tough on Burma Too

The Irrawaddy News

The Burmese junta's No 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, recently began an official six-day visit to China. This comes as international and regional pressure mounts on Burma to reconsider its ongoing trial against pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

It also comes just after several ethnic ceasefire groups based near the Chinese border reportedly rejected a regime proposal to be reassigned as border guards.

For Maung Aye, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Burmese defense services and commander-in-chief of the Burmese army, this is his third visit to China in six years. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, noted that Maung Aye’s meeting with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping is one of an "exchange of visits."

Whenever it is facing a crisis, the Burmese junta likes schedule one of these official visits to approach its big brother for advice.

The Burmese army is in turmoil—despite last year entrenching itself in Burmese politics after pushing through a constitution that gives it a guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament.

Suddenly, the Burmese army’s authority is being challenged by the ethnic ceasefire groups it has long taken pains to subdue, especially the powerful United Wa State Army, the Kokang group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Kachin Independence Organization, all of which have reportedly rejected the junta’s bid to transform them into border guard forces under Burmese army command.

Behind the pleasantries of his meeting in China, what Maung Aye will be trying to weed out is whether China will take a back seat if the junta launches a military operation against the ceasefire groups.

There is no doubt that China would like to see the Burmese regime and the ceasefire groups negotiate the sensitive issue peacefully and maintain regional "stability," so that China can continue to capitalize on Burma’s natural resources and a border trade which reached US $2.6 billion in 2008.

Apart from the pressing border issue, knowing that Naypyidaw is losing its diplomatic joust with the international community over Suu Kyi’s ridiculous conviction, the Burmese generals are anxious that their traditional ally stands by their side.

Maung Aye is expected to plead for the continued use of the Chinese veto to block any future resolution unfavorable to the Naypyidaw regime.

Concerning the issue of Suu Kyi, China has so far only said that the trial is an internal affair.

At the European Union and China summit in Prague in May, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao initially asked the EU to "ensure that our bilateral relationship will not be adversely affected by individual incidents."

However, soon after, Chinese foreign ministry officials voiced rare criticism of the Burmese junta’s treatment of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate at an Asia-Europe Meeting in Hanoi with Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win.

There is no doubt the Chinese government has been quietly expanding its international influence in the 21st century. It already commands a superpower’s status throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America in the energy and extractive industries.

China has added to its leadership role in the region by initiating a $10 billion investment cooperation fund and an offer of $15 billion in credit to its Southeast Asian neighbors.

China knows that in the political world, international recognition comes at a price. It must exercise its power carefully and, in countries such as North Korea and Burma where Western countries have little leverage, it must show responsibility.

Of course, Burma is China's closest ally in Southeast Asia and has been a major recipient of Chinese military hardware and a potential springboard for projecting Chinese military power in the region since 1988.

Like the recent public pressure on North Korea for its foolhardy demonstration of nuclear missiles, China must also show a firm hand when dealing with the Burmese regime.

China must send a strong message to Naypyidaw to release political prisoners immediately, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to start a meaningful dialogue with the opposition, including ethnic groups.

Above all, the junta must be told that the time has come for it to allow its people an opportunity to participate in the development of genuine "national reconciliation."

To this end, China holds the key.

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