BEIJING — Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi expects China to support historic peace talks with armed groups near the countries’ troubled joint border, she said Friday during a landmark visit overshadowed by a stalled dam project.
“We do believe that as a good neighbour China will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters in Beijing ahead of meeting China’s President Xi Jinping.
“China, as a neighbour which shares a very important border along which there are many ethnic armed groups, is important in its goodwill,” she added.
Myanmar will hold a long-planned conference with armed ethnic groups later this month, as Aung San Suu Kyi targets peace as a prelude to rebooting the economy after her party won a landslide election victory.
“If you ask me what my most important aim is for my country, that is to achieve peace and unity among the different peoples of our union,” Aung San Suu Kyi said. “Without peace, there can be no sustained development”.
Several complex ethnic conflicts — with some groups fighting the government for decades — simmer across Myanmar’s poor and militarised borderlands, hampering efforts to build up the country’s economy after the end of junta rule.
Some of the groups have ethnic and cultural links to the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan, and the porous border is notorious for trade in drugs, arms and precious stones.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first major foreign trip since her civilian administration took power in March has been dominated by the $3.6 billion Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam, on hold since protests in 2011.
China has been pressing for its resumption ever since.
Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that Myanmar had set up a committee to review the project, without saying whether it would be resumed.
“It is for the commission to find out what the best answer is,” she said. “I cannot say now what the best solution is.”
Beijing was instrumental in shielding Myanmar’s former junta rulers from international sanctions while Aung San Suu Kyi, now State Counsellor, languished for over a decade under house arrest as a democracy activist.
At the time Myitsone — originally designed to supply most of its electricity to China — was seen as emblematic of Beijing’s economic dominance over Myanmar.
The state-run Global Times acknowledged that a “real breakthrough” on the dam was unlikely during the visit, but insisted: “It is only a matter of time before the project will be resumed.”
The newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party also chided people in Myanmar who claim that Beijing is exploiting the country’s resources.
“The misguided thought is the result of people’s impulse at the initial stage of democratisation and the manipulation of the Western media,” it said.
Myanmar has drawn closer to the United States during its transition to civilian rule.
But the state-run China Daily said in an editorial that Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit showed she was a “political realist” who realises the importance of “reassuring” China.
Aung San Suu Kyi insisted that she would pursue the same “non-aligned” foreign policy as her predecessors.
Domestically, job creation and agricultural development were top priorities following her administration’s first 100 days in office, she said.
“The 100 days have not made a great difference to the economic scene in Burma. The more important projects will start taking off in the next three to four months,” she said.
She vowed to follow a different development strategy than the export-led model favoured by China and other East Asian countries.
“There are many people who still think that the way to economic development is through garment factories,” she said.
“But I sometimes wonder if that is very 20th century, and we’re now in the 21st century”.