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Suu Kyi's visit to China aimed at advancing peace talks with ethnic groups

JAKARTA/BEIJING -- The ongoing visit to China by Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi is apparently aimed at mustering China's support in pressing forward with peace talks with her country's armed ethnic minorities as China has influence on those groups near the bilateral borders.

Suu Kyi apparently prioritized China over other major powers such as the United States and Japan as her primary destination because the peace process will culminate later this month at the 21st Century Panglong Conference. The meeting was named after the historic 1947 Panglong Conference, where Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, reached an accord with ethnic minorities over the establishment of a federal state. The upcoming conference will provide Suu Kyi with a prime opportunity to inherit the will of her late father, who is touted as the "father of the nation" of modern-day Myanmar, and advance the peace negotiations.

According to local media reports, the United Wa State Army, which boasts the largest military capability among ethnic groups along the border area, is positive about sitting at the negotiating table, but the Kachin Independence Army, which is still in a state of war with Myanmar's government forces, and other groups are said to be reluctant to participate in the meeting.

On Aug. 18, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Suu Kyi and expressed his strong support for the 21st Century Panglong Conference, calling for reconciliation between the Myanmarese government and armed ethnic groups through dialogue, according to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Myanmar shares a lengthy border with China stretching over 2,200 kilometers, and some of Myanmar's ethnic groups along the border area speak Chinese and enjoy relatively free traffic across borders, forming cultural and economic ties with China. Therefore, Chinese authorities are believed to have significant influence on these ethnic groups.

Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, points out that Suu Kyi's visit to China ahead of the 21st Century Panglong Conference is aimed at having China urge some of the armed ethnic groups to participate in the meeting.

Back in Myanmar, however, some have voiced concerns over the possibility of Suu Kyi being exploited by China through her generous approach to the country.

In 2011, the then Thein Sein government suspended the large-scale "Myitsone Dam" project led by China, which was under way in northern Kachin state, after strong public protests in Myanmar. The project was under fire because 90 percent of the total power output was to be directed to China at the cost of possible environmental destruction in Myanmar. However, China has been calling for the resumption of the project, and the issue became a topic for discussion during Suu Kyi's recent meeting with Chinese Premier Li.

During the military junta rule, Myanmar was slapped with economic sanctions by Western countries for cracking down upon pro-democracy movements and was isolated in the international community. As China was backing the military junta and pushed for development in Myanmar, public sentiment in Myanmar is said to still remain negative toward China.

As domestic opinion in Myanmar played a significant role in Suu Kyi's political comeback from house arrest by the military administration, she would lose her support base if she was to disregard domestic opinion to approach China and end up being exploited by the Communist country.

Following her current trip to China, Suu Kyi is expected to visit the United States and Japan for possible economic talks in order to break her country's dependence on China.

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