Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met President Xi Jinping
Observers say China is hedging its bets ahead of Myanmar elections later this year
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is not expected to raise the issue of her hosts' crackdown on dissent
Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met Chinese President Xi Jinping as she begins a trip that will emphasize the Nobel laureate’s apparent transition from human rights defender to pragmatic politician.
Suu Kyi met Wednesday with Wang Jiarui, a senior official of the Chinese Communist Party, shortly after touching down in the Chinese capital, according to China’s state-run media. Wang is vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and head of the International Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Suu Kyi also met with Xi, and she is scheduled to meet with Premier Li Keqiang during her trip, according to her party, the National League for Democracy.
Observers say China hopes that the June 10-14 visit, a party-to-party meeting between the National League for Democracy and the Chinese Communist Party, will allow the country to boost its waning influence in its southern neighbor, which has increased engagement with the West during dramatic political reforms in recent years.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s first visit to China offers an opportunity to burnish her credentials as a stateswoman before national elections later this year, said Aung Zaw, editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy, a news magazine which specializes in covering politics in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
“She’s been dubbed a darling of the West, but she’s showing she’s someone they can work with,” he said.
Activists are calling on Suu Kyi, who was held under house arrest for nearly 15 years by Myanmar’s former military junta, to speak out on human rights issues during her visit to China, which is cracking down on dissent.
In particular, Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson said in a statement, Suu Kyi should call for the immediate release of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, the writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” by calling for political reform and human rights.
But observers say any such move is unlikely.
“I don’t think Beijing is inviting her as an icon of democracy,” said Zaw. “I think they’re seeing her as a politician who is ready to play.”
The 69-year-old leader of Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy has been criticized since her release from house arrest in 2010 for her failure to speak up regarding causes in her country, notably the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority, which has created a refugee crisis in the region.
“The Aung San Suu Kyi we used to know and the one we know today are very different,” said Zaw, adding that she had also disappointed some people when a commission she led had approved a controversial Chinese-operated copper mine over the objections of protesters.
“She has become a politician,” Zaw said. “She’s no longer a human rights activist.”
David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Asia for Human Rights Watch, told CNN that China’s leaders are confident that Suu Kyi will not embarrass them.
“Beijing is probably… calculating that Suu Kyi’s refusal to speak out on many human rights issues in her own country means she is unlikely to speak out about China’s denial of democracy and appalling human rights record,” Mathieson said.
Suu Kyi’s visit comes at a turbulent time in the relationship between China and Myanmar.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, relied on its northern neighbor as a diplomatic ally and investor during the decades when it was an international pariah state ruled by an authoritarian military junta.
But since political reforms in 2011, relations between China and Myanmar’s quasi-military government have run “hot and cold” due to a number of issues, said Zaw.
In March, five people were killed in China’s Yunnan province when a shell from fighting between Myanmar government troops and ethnic Kokang rebels strayed across the border.
And China, the largest investor in Myanmar, has been unhappy when major infrastructure projects it has backed, such as the Myitsone dam, have been suspended due to protests.
“China’s leaders can no longer trust Burma’s military-backed civilian government to guarantee its many interests in the country,” said Mathieson.
By building bridges with Suu Kyi, China was underlining its interest in Myanmar, said Zaw.
“Everyone is coming to play the game over there and I think China is telling them they’re a stakeholder,” he said.
While Suu Kyi cannot run for president – a clause in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution bars her, as someone who has been married to a foreigner – her party will likely be more powerful in the new government, said Mathieson.
“This is China hedging its bets by expanding their relationship with her,” he said.
The move could also be read as a snub to Myanmar’s quasi-military government in light of recent tensions. “The invitation will no doubt upset the Burmese government,” said Zaw.
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at a briefing Tuesday that the visit was intended to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two parties, and move forward the China-Myanmar friendly and cooperative relations.”
Meanwhile, China’s state-run Global Times was upbeat about the visit, saying in an editorial it believed Suu Kyi would “become a good friend of China’s.”
CNN’s Shen Lu contributed to this report.