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Burmese political exiles in Thailand, including members of the National League for Democracy, had regular communication with Chinese officials, including one close to the Prime Minister’s office, according to a leaked US cable from 2007.
The Chinese used these lines of communication with exiles to “[solicit] their views on the situation inside Burma and [offer] advice”, the cable says, noting regular interaction with Nyo Ohn Myint, from the National League for Democracy – Liberated Area (NLD-LA), as well as members of the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB).
The cable also quotes Nyo Ohn Myint as saying that the more hardline element of Burma’s opposition, such as student leaders Mya Aye and Min Ko Naing, “went knocking on the Russian and Chinese embassy doors” in Rangoon, likely in an effort to engage officials.
To date China’s rapport with the Burmese opposition has garnered little publicity. Beijing is seen as a strong ally of the government and a key investor in the country, although it is known to be concerned about political stability and the security of its energy projects there.
“According to Nyo Myint, the Chinese are concerned about Burma’s aging leaders, the student movement, and their own survey research inside Burma that reportedly showed 87% of respondents expressing a need for change in the political system,”
The cable is dated 8 June 2007 and was sent from the US consulate in Chiang Mai, which keeps regular communication with the Burmese exile community in Thailand.
Nyo Ohn Myint told US officials that he had traveled to China 16 times between 2003 and 2007, mostly to Kunming in Yunnan province, and met with Chinese officials during their visits to Thailand.
During a May 2007 visit to Kunming, “Chinese officials told him [Nyo Ohn Myint] that China’s policy ‘can’t be changed’ for at least the next three years”, whilst telling the National League for Democracy, the main opposition force in Burma, that it “needs to work more with the ethnic groups”. Officials also reportedly said that “the regime’s intention to disarm the ethnics is beneficial for the NLD” but no elaboration was given in the cable on how.
The revelation that Chinese officials kept channels of communication open with the Burmese exiled community may come as some surprise, given the traditional positioning of China as an opponent to democratic reform in Burma.
But the cable shows at least an eagerness at the time by certain players in the Chinese government to engage both sides in lieu of a possible shift in Burma’s political landscape. How far China would go to push relations with the opposition however was brought into question three months after the cable is dated, when it refused to condemn the bloody crackdown by Burmese troops on the September 2007 monk-led uprising.
Of the attempts by Min Ko Naing to engage the Russians and Chinese, it says however: “Shut out by the Russians, the pair nevertheless talked with Burmese-speaking officers at the Chinese embassy who used Burmese names and accused them of being troublemakers.”