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What does Myanmar's Than Shwe want from Beijing?

By John Vause, CNN
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Myanmar's military leader on visit to China
  • Myanmar Sr. Gen. Than Shwe is on a four-day visit to China
  • China says it's the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Myanmar
  • Analysts say the visit may concern the upcoming Myanmar elections
  • Myanmar
  • China
  • Than Shwe
  • Hu Jintao

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When a military dictator comes calling, Beijing doesn't like to give too many details away.

So when China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked why Myanmar's Sr. Gen. Than Shwe is here for a four-day visit, spokeswoman Jiang Yu replied, "China and Myanmar are friendly neighbors and this year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations."

As is customary with the superstitious and mysterious Than Shwe, there is a good deal of speculation and not a lot of hard facts about just why he is meeting with China's President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. There are also plans for a trip to the Shanghai Expo; Shenzhen, the birthplace of China's economic "miracle;" and industrial heart land of Guangzhou.

Analysts have suggested the visit has a lot to do with Myanmar's elections, planned for November, the first in two decades. They say the general may want to shore up China's support ahead of time.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in Myanmar the last time around in 1990, but the military junta refused to accept the results. Suu Kyi, who has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, remains under house arrest.

Under the new rules outlined by the military, a party cannot run candidates in the upcoming elections if any members are under arrest -- hence, Suu Kyi's party is boycotting the vote.

"The regime in Burma are complete control freaks," said Anna Roberts, executive director of the Burma Campaign, referring to Myanmar by its previous name. She described the upcoming elections as a total sham, with the military junta guaranteed 25 seats -- a quarter of the seats in parliament.

"Even if the elections were free and fair, it wouldn't make any difference because it brings in a constitution which legitimizes the dictatorship," she told CNN.

When it comes to the looming election, China's Foreign Ministry once again stuck to its standard line.

"Myanmar's general elections are Myanmar's internal affair," the ministry said. "We also hope that the international community can provide constructive help ... and avoid negatively impacting politics in Myanmar and the peace and stability of the region."

Critics say China should be doing much more.

"China should be using its influence to make genuine reforms. The international community has been dancing to the regime's tune," says Roberts, of the Burma Campaign. "Every single effort has been rejected by the dictatorship."

But with Beijing reportedly investing billions in Myanmar, especially for access to natural resources like timber, precious stones, and energy, as well as strategic access to its ports for the Chinese navy, it seems unlikely the Chinese are willing to push the regime.

After all, should the junta collapse, it would most likely be replaced with a Western-leaning democracy -- not exactly what the Chinese leadership wants on their country's doorstep.