Why China Has Warmed Up to Myanmar’s National League for Democracy

Why China Has Warmed Up to Myanmar’s National League for Democracy
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the inaugural session of parliament, Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Feb. 8, 2016 (AP photo by Aung Shine Oo).

Earlier this month, on Feb. 1, Myanmar’s first democratically elected parliament in more than half a century held its first session since landmark elections last November. Dominated by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won nearly 80 percent of its seats, the parliament faces a host a challenges, from internal ethnic conflicts to the plight of the minority Rohingya Muslims. But when it comes to international affairs, no issue is perhaps more delicate and consequential than dealing with Myanmar’s powerful neighbor and patron, China.

Beijing signaled its interest in Myanmar’s political transition last June, when it quietly set aside its policy of noninterference in other countries’ affairs and invited Suu Kyi to an official meeting with President Xi Jinping. Five months later, Suu Kyi’s electoral victory was greeted enthusiastically by Chinese state-owned newspapers, which ran several stories on how the two countries can get along in the future. That was rather suspicious, when one looks at China’s coverage of democratic movements elsewhere.

In order to understand why China is showing such warmth to the NLD, one must first make sense of Myanmar’s process of opening-up, a de facto shift away from Chinese influence that has been underway since 2009. According to Maung Zarni, a Burmese activist and nonresident scholar with the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia, Chinese interests in Myanmar are twofold. On the economic side, they involve the development of landlocked Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar, as well as securing natural resources.

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