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

Last Updated on July 11, 2024 4:46 pm

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *