General Than Shwe, the man who heads Myanmar’s ruling junta, probably knows the election his country plans to hold is unlikely to change its pariah status in the West. With Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi barred from running, the vote has already been derided in many capitals as a staged-managed sham intended to further entrench the military government.
But the General arrived Tuesday in Beijing for an official visit secure in the knowledge that China, one of Myanmar’s biggest trading partners and few allies, is far more interested in the stability of its southern neighbour than in seeing democracy flourish in the country, also known as Burma.
Gen. Than Shwe is expected to spend much of his meeting Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao explaining the political reforms he is introducing while assuring his hosts that little will change after the Nov. 7 election. He will also be introducing some of those expected to move to the forefront after the election. The 34-person delegation accompanying him on the trip includes many former generals who retired recently to join the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is expected to win the vote handily, thanks to tight restrictions on campaigning by the opposition.
“I believe [Gen. Than Shwe] will seek China’s support for Myanmar’s democratic process,” said Yu Changsen, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at Zhongshan University in southern Guangdong province. And China, he said, will likely give that support, particularly since the election is expected to return a power structure all but identical to the one that has ruled the country since a coup in 1962.
“I think if the military government remains in power, it would be more favourable in terms of relations between China and Myanmar, for example, regarding border issues,” Prof. Yu said. “Rather than a politically unstable party, it would be better to keep the current one, as far as China as concerned.”
The relationship has worked well for both autocratic states. China has injected billions into Myanmar’s weak economy and has given the regime desperately needed diplomatic support. In return, Beijing has gained an ally against a renewed U.S. push to limit Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia. China is also building two pipelines – one carrying oil, the other natural gas – from its southern province of Yunnan to the port of Kyaukpyu on Myanmar’s western coast, providing a corridor to the Indian Ocean and a direct route to China’s growing investments in Africa.
Ties between the two countries appear closer than ever, with trade – most of it in the form of Chinese exports to Myanmar – skyrocketing since a visit to Myanmar by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this year. China poured $8.2-billion into Myanmar in May of this year alone (compared with $2.9-billion for all of 2009).
During his trip to China, Gen. Than Shwe will visit the ongoing World Expo in Shanghai, as well as the booming southern city of Shenzhen, where China launched its own economic reforms 30 years ago. Myanmar has recently seen a raft of hasty privatizations of state assets, including the sale of more than 100 government buildings, port facilities and a large stake in the national airline. Critics say the privatization process has been marked by widespread cronyism.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu indicated that Beijing plans to back Myanmar’s political process, and hopes to see others do the same. “We hope the international community can provide constructive help to the upcoming election and refrain from making any negative impact on the domestic political process and the regional peace and stability,” Ms. Jiang told a news conference Tuesday in Beijing.
Others hold a much dimmer view of the vote, which bars all those with a criminal conviction from taking part – including Ms. Suu Kyi and the more than 2,100 political prisoners held by the regime. The election will be conducted under emergency laws that forbid criticism of the government as well as gatherings of more than five people. Furthermore, the election law guarantees the military 25 per cent of the seats in the new parliament.
“China’s main concern is Burmese stability. They don’t want anything happening like in 1988 [when troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing thousands] or the 2007 Saffron Revolution,” Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior figure in the National League for Democracy, said in a telephone interview from his exile in Thailand.
The NLD is boycotting the vote, arguing that its sweeping 1990 election win should instead be honoured by the military. The election has caused a deep rift in the pro-democracy movement, however, and a breakaway faction of the NLD known as the National Democratic Force has registered to take part.
Ms. Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, has called on her supporters to boycott the election and monitor it for irregularities.
Source: The Globe and Mail