China defends Burma polls, eyes military ties

China yesterday warned the world against meddling in upcoming elections in Burma and announced that it will look to develop closer military ties with its southern neighbour.

One of China’s top military officials made the pledge when he met the junta’s third-in-command, Shwe Mann, who is part of the senior delegation currently in Beijing. The Xinhua news agency said that Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde “hoped the two militaries would work together to carry forward the traditional friendship”.

The top-level visit to China has attracted intense media scrutiny: Burma’s elderly and reclusive dictator, Than Shwe, is accompanied by Burma’s former Joint Chief of Staff, Shwe Mann, whom it is rumoured has retired from his military post to contest the elections, slated for 7 November.

But while the polls, Burma’s first in two decades, have been widely derided as a sham aimed at extending military rule behind the guise of a civilian government, China warned against interference from the international community.

“The international community can provide constructive help… [and] refrain from any negative impact on the domestic political process of Myanmar [Burma] and on regional peace and stability,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told AFP.

Burma’s state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper today led with a front-page story on the four-day visit which began yesterday. It carried the first apparent confirmation of Shwe Mann’s retirement, referring to the former Joint Chief of Staff as merely Thura U Shwe Mann – Thura and U are Burmese honorifics, both often used for civilians.

Little else has been officially reported of what appears to be Burma’s biggest military reshuffle in years, with more than 50 recently vacated positions having been filled since Burma’s prime minister in April set the ball rolling with his resignation from the military.

If true, the shake-up will do little to placate critics of the looming elections who claim that it will be the same iron-fisted generals pulling the strings after 7 November. Than Shwe was expected to brief China on the polls during the visit, as well as reassure Beijing that their volatile shared border will remain secure.

China has rapidly climbed the ranks of regional countries investing in Burma, with the world’s most populous nation casting a hungry eye on the pariah’s vast energy reserves. As well as becoming a key economic crutch for Burma, China has also become the generals’ most effective shield, continually defending the junta from international criticism and potential penalties in the UN Security Council, where it holds the power of veto.

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