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Wednesday, July 10, 2024

CNA Explains: Myanmar’s ex-president visited China, followed by its junta No 2. What’s the play?

CNA
Leong Wai Kit
10 Jul 2024

Myanmar correspondent Leong Wai Kit unpacks recent trips to China by Thein Sein and Soe Win, and what both countries want from each other.

This handout photograph taken on Jul 6, 2024 and released by the Myanmar Military Information Team shows Myanmar's military deputy commander in chief of defence services Soe Win (C), upon his arrival at Qingdao in Shandong province of China. (Photo: AFP) 

Beijing has been regularly inviting Myanmar’s junta-appointed ministers to China on various official visits.

But it was a late June visit by ex-president Thein Sein that sparked international headlines.

And just over a week later, the Myanmar military leadership’s No 2 man Soe Win made an official trip to attend a forum in Qingdao in Shandong province.

This made him the highest-ranking military leader to visit China in an official capacity since the 2021 coup
 
What’s behind the timing of the visits?

The timeline of events would suggest that China seems to favour Myanmar’s former president over any of the current leaders in the military. Or that Thein Sein’s visit paved the way for Soe Win, who’s deputy army chief - and deputy prime minister under the State Administration Council formed after the coup.

But neither is the case, according to sources close to the Myanmar military.

For starters, CNA understands that since the military coup which ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratically elected government, Beijing has adopted an unspoken policy of inviting junta-appointed ministers via multilateral rather than exclusive, bilateral platforms.

This would explain why junta ministers have only gone to China for forums, conferences and events involving other countries’ participation.

Late last year, specifically two months after the Operation 1027 military offensive kicked off, Beijing began stepping up engagements with Myanmar.

The moniker refers to Oct 27, the date when a trio of powerful ethnic resistance armies launched large-scale, coordinated attacks that caught the Myanmar army off-guard. Since then, the ethnic armies have seized control of various territories from the junta.

In January, China brokered a ceasefire between the fighting groups, though the ethnic armies have since accused the junta of violating the truce and causing civilian casualties.

“Beijing intended to engage deputy army chief Soe Win and would have invited him to China in the first quarter of the year,” a source told CNA.

“But back then, (military chief) Min Aung Hlaing had trust issues with Soe Win – that disrupted the engagement effort and China’s invitation.

“Meanwhile, via the diplomatic track (of) engagement, Thein Sein was able to make the trip to Beijing on Jun 28,” the source added.

As to why China is open to engaging the junta leadership but has yet to officially host Min Aung Hlaing, another source said Beijing would not do so unless Myanmar’s No 1 can produce firm dates for an election – which he initially promised to hold in August 2023 – or lay out concrete plans for the country’s transition towards democracy.

What's on the table?

Thein Sein’s Jun 28 trip was to mark the 70th anniversary of China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence or guidelines for foreign relations.

Thein Sein, a former general himself who was Myanmar’s president from 2011 to 2016, attended a conference where Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in a speech that Beijing would not become a “strong” state that would try to dominate others.

Thein Sein also attended the 60th anniversary back in 2014.

This year, on the sidelines of the event, he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with Myanmar state media reporting that the two exchanged views on friendly relations and cooperation between the countries.

A source told CNA that Wang had asked Thein Sein to persuade Min Aung Hlaing to hand over power and form an interim government to pave the way for elections.

Meanwhile on Sat (Jul 6), second-in-command Soe Win arrived in China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's Green Development Forum.

Myanmar state media said he held bilateral talks with China officials and discussed issues including border stability, weeding out online gambling and drug-smuggling, as well as boosting trade between both countries.

Observers have noted China’s unhappiness with the junta for its inability to crack down on online scam syndicates – which allegedly involve Chinese nationals – operating near the Myanmar border.

The Myanmar military has also been unable to stop clashes up north and near the China border, which have resulted in deaths and injuries on the Chinese side.

Soe Win’s trip takes place just as the junta is struggling to fend off renewed fighting with ethnic armies. The general is likely to seek China’s help and support in suppressing his opponents.

Related:
What's the significance of the trips?

If there’s one thing the visits by Thein Sein and Soe Win have made clear, it’s that China has not abandoned the junta, said Peace Research Institute Oslo researcher Amara Thiha.

“The visits indicate that China is willing to support the central administration and its efforts towards transition,” he said.

He added Beijing was likely also using the visits to quell anti-China sentiments within Myanmar, strengthen ties and fix any issues of distrust.

While Soe Win’s in China, he’ll also likely need to clarify some of Myanmar’s positions.

“Honestly, (he) has a lot of explaining to do to China – its election plan, the escalation of fighting and the meeting with US in Hanoi,” said Stimson Centre senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme and director of the China programme Yun Sun.

In June, United States assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink reportedly met senior Myanmar naval officer Kyaw Lin Zaw in Vietnam.

No details emerged from the reported meeting but it has prompted talk of a possible US-led mediation process. The meeting was also reportedly given the go-ahead by countries in the region – as well as China.

What else could happen in the coming months?

Sources told CNA to also look out for China demonstrating its commitment to helping the Myanmar military.

One source close to both diplomatic and military circles in Myanmar said Beijing had already agreed to “support Myanmar’s State Administration Council with armaments and has committed to preventing the (Myanmar leadership) from failing”, amid strong resistance.

Other sources said more details of this deal would be unveiled in the coming months.

By end-July, Myanmar’s state of emergency - already extended five times - will expire. Many expect Min Aung Hlaing to continue holding on to power and delaying elections.

This would also be a time for China to closely watch Myanmar’s next move – whether it will heed Beijing’s call to hasten the peace process and transition to democracy, with concrete timelines for an election, remains the key question.

Want an issue or topic explained? Email us at digitalnews@mediacorp.com.sg. Your question might become a story on our site.

Source: CNA/jo


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