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China: After North Korea, Myanmar?

In the run-up to next year’s Beijing Olympics, China has been keen to project itself as a facilitator of solutions to long-standing problems in the Asian region.

2. Its quiet role in persuading North Korea to give up its military nuclear capability and to respond positively to South Korean overtures for a normalisation of relations between North and South Korea is widely recognised. If North korea is showing signs of wanting to come out of its years of international diplomatic isolation, a large part of the credit should go to Beijing.

3. Since June last, there have been indicators that Beijing has mounted a similar initiative to nudge the military Junta in Myanmar to come out of its isolation and respond to international concerns over its policies. The first indicator was its facilitating a low-profile meeting between senior officials of the US State Department and the Myanmar Government in Beijing in the last week of June. The meeting was reportedly attended by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Eric John, and Myanmar’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information.

4. The recent large demonstrations spearheaded by young monks all over Myanmar,its violent suppression by the Junta and the international outrage over the brutal suppression brought out a sophisticated response from China. Even while openly sticking to its traditional position of no interference in the internal affairs of Myanmar and no coercive diplomacy through economic sanctions and orchestrated condemnations of the Junta, China made it clear to the Junta that it cannot go on defying the international community.

5. China’s public reactions to the recent events were more forthcoming than in the past. While talking to Mr.Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, over phone on September 29,2007, the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr. Wen Jiabao , was reported to have said: “China hopes that all parties concerned in Myanmar show restraint, resume stability through peaceful means as soon as possible, promote domestic reconciliation and achieve democracy and development.” Significantly, his comments over phone to the British Prime Minister were immediately released to the media by the Chinese Foreign Office in order to reassure the international community that it has been responsive to the international opinion on this subject.

6. The initial Chinese efforts were directed towards urging moderation in the use of force by the Junta and preventing a repetition of 1988, which might have made the situation more complicated than it has been. Subsequent Chinese efforts have been directed towards nudging the Junta to shed its rigidities of the past and respond appropriately to the international concerns. The decision of the Junta to receive Mr.Ibrahim Gambari, the UN Special Representative, who met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi twice and Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the Junta,once, the subsequent indications in the State-owned media that the General might not be averse to meeting Suu Kyi provided she gave up her support to international sanctions against Myanmar and her so-called confrontational attitude and the invitation to Ms.Shari Villarosa, the US chief of mission in Myanmar, to visit Naypyidaw, the new Capital, for a meeting with as yet unspecified members of the Junta are tentative indications that the Junta might have realised the untenability of continued rigidity in its policies. The credit for this should go in no small measure to the Chinese prodding. Mr.Nyan Win, a spokesman of Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy (NLD), was reported to have stated on October 5,2007, that she would consider the offer in a positive light. There have been indications that Mr.Gambari might be visiting Myanmar again shortly to continue his mission to urge the Junta to talk to its opponents.

7. These developments have come in the wake of unconfirmed reports about unhappiness among junior ranks of the Army over the use of brutal force against the monks, who were demonstrating peacefully. Are these moves by the Junta merely tactical to soften international criticism and to quieten its junior officers without making any substantive changes in its policies or do they presage a significant shift in policy? It is difficult to answer this question at present. But, one can expect that China, which has been keen that its Myanmar-related policies do not cast a shadow over next year’s Olympics,will continue its prodding of the Junta to step out of its self-created shell of international diplomatic isolation .

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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