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Developments in Burma:China Factor – Interview with Exiled Burmese Member of Parliament

Dr.Tint Swe, an elected Member of the Burmese Parliament in 1990, representing the National League for Democracy (NLD) and exiled in India for the last 17 years, spoke to the Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS) at an interview on “Developments in Burma – China Factor” (Chennai, 1 December 2007). Questions put to Dr. Tint Swe and answers provided by him are as follows:

Question: Thanks for speaking to CCCS. Unconfirmed reports say that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi may visit Yangon soon. He may meet Aung San Suu Kyi, among others. If true, what would be the significance of the visit?

Answer: I have heard about such reports. If materialises, it can be presumed that the visit has had the tacit agreement of the Burmese military junta, which listens to China’s advice. On China’s position regarding Burma so far, the pro-democracy movement has been unhappy. However, it feels that in comparison to the Indian response, China’s reaction has been relatively faster and effective. The visit is bound to be regarded as a very significant diplomatic endeavour of China, which can change the course of situation in Burma. The exiled Burmese leaders hope that China’s role towards Burma will be constructive.

Question: If the visit materialises, what will be the likely agenda for Chinese foreign minister in Burma?

Answer: The Chinese Foreign Minister, in all probability, may call upon the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi and urge them to cooperate with each other and work together. He may give stress to a dialogue process involving the two sides and support the initiative being taken by the UN special envoy Gambari.

Question: How do you compare the Chinese and Indian responses to the situation in Burma?

Answer: China may not be concerned with issues relating to democracy and human rights in Burma. Instead, it may be worried about any instability in that partner nation, as for Beijing, many things are at stake in Burma – trade, access to Bay of Bengal, resident Chinese community and necessity for a positive image in the background of impending Olympics. China has been giving an appearance of listening to the opposition voices in Burma at least for the last four years. The Chinese Embassy in Yangon has been responding to the communications from the local people inside the country and may have established contact indirectly with NLD leaders there.

As for India, it has not been feeling the necessity for a proactive approach on Burma issue, perhaps in absence of proper assessment reports from its mission or the Indian community in Burma. There are a good number of influential Indian businessmen in Burma like those from Goenka family. But, they are afraid to speak against the junta. Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has recently observed that a solution to the Burma question should be ‘inclusive’ and based on ‘national reconciliation’. In the third week of November 2007, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was reported by the Hindustan Times as mentioning about India’s plan to put New Delhi’s arms supplies to Burma on hold for two months. Such statements by Indian leaders may signal the beginning of a new approach by India towards Burma. I’m happy about it.

There is a ‘China card’ in Burma. It is in the forms of the junta’s military dependence on Beijing, China’s massive business interests in Burma and last but not least China’s veto power in the UN Security Council. India lacks such a card in Burma. Burma’s award of gas contract to China instead of India is because of the ‘China card’.

The NLD wishes that both China and India should act together on Burma, avoiding tendencies to indulge in competition with each other there. They should understand that the junta is on one hand aiming to have India and China as two pillars of support, but on the other, is playing one against the other.

Question: Sino-US relations are improving. The US Defence Secretary has visited China recently when he denied that China is a threat to US interests ‘at this stage’. President Bush may visit China at the time of Olympics. Washington and Beijing are currently involved in a Strategic Dialogue and a Strategic Economic Dialogue. Under such a situation, is the US behind the plan for Chinese foreign minister’s visit to Burma? Is Washington, after utilising China’s help in settling the North Korean nuclear issue, again trying to use Beijing’s good offices, for reconciliation in Burma?

Answer: The NLD is happy about the improving US-China ties. In June 2007, China hosted a meeting at Beijing between the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Eric John and a group of ministers of Burma. That meeting can be considered a result of US-China coordination on the question of Burma. The US has been outspoken in the matter of support to Burmese democracy movement. Five years back, however, it felt that it cannot act alone in this matter and accordingly, started efforts to co-opt Burma’s neighbours like India, China and ASEAN. Washington is behind the present efforts at the UN; it has encouraged the UN envoy Gambari’s visit to India, China, Japan, EU and Russia to discuss Burma.

Question: What you would like India to do in the case of Burma at this moment?

Answer: The NLD appreciates India’s sympathy towards Burma’s aspirations and permission for the Burmese refugees to live in India. India is the only country in the world where the intellectuals are showing their solidarity with the Burmese democratic voices. This factor should influence India’s foreign policy towards Burma.

Question: China had supported the Communist Party of Burma (White Flag) in the past. What is the present situation?

Answer : The Communist Party of Burma (White Flag) is now defunct. China had stopped financial assistance to that Party.

Question: Among Burmese military leaders, who is pro-China and who can be considered close to India?

Answer: Khin Nyunt, who has been dismissed, is known for his sympathy for China. Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, the Number 2 in the Burmese military hierarchy is believed to be close to India. The military junta however, is taking care to convey the message to the outside world that such categorisation would be wrong. To prove that, the junta sent its number three leader General Shwe Mann to both China and India.

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