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Chinese foreign minister expected to visit Myanmar for regional talks


Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to travel to Myanmar for a regional meeting this weekend. Photo: AP

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Myanmar this weekend, according to a junta spokesman, in what would be his first trip to the Southeast Asian neighbour since the military seized power last year.

Wang will attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation group in Myanmar, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday.

But it was unclear whether Wang would meet junta chief Min Aung Hlaing during the trip, with the spokesman saying he was “not sure” if it would happen.

He said the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam would also attend the meeting, which runs from Saturday to Tuesday.

All are members of the group of countries that share the Mekong River, which is called the Lancang in China. The summit is to be held in Bagan, a Unesco World Heritage Site, according to Thailand’s foreign ministry.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian would not confirm Wang’s trip during a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, saying only that relevant information would be released “in due course”.

It would be the highest-profile visit to Myanmar by a Beijing official since the military seized power in February last year, when the elected government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown and she and other senior officials were detained.

Fan Hongwei, an expert on China-Myanmar relations at Xiamen University, noted that it was unusual for diplomatically isolated Myanmar to host a summit and said Wang’s trip should not be seen as Beijing endorsing the military regime.

“This is a subregional meeting and is being held in the context that all member states agreed to let Myanmar host the meeting and that’s why China will join it,” he said.

Fan said hosting the meeting could be a first step to break the deadlock with the junta, which is under Western sanctions for abuses committed by the military and has shown little willingness to cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ five-point peace plan.

“It is a fact that the country is in turmoil and the outside world has no power to change Myanmar,” he said. “So rather than sanctions and isolation, engagement could be another option.”

China – which shares a border of more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) with Myanmar – has been the country’s biggest trading partner and investor as well as a long-term supporter.

Beijing has refused to condemn the military coup and called the seizure of power and detention of Suu Kyi “a major cabinet reshuffle”, but has called for all parties to “resolve their differences”.

Its response has drawn criticism from the West, and protesters in Myanmar accused Beijing of backing the coup.

Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang has travelled to Myanmar twice since the military took power, and Foreign Minister Wang hosted his counterpart U Wunna Maung Lwin in China twice last year. Wang’s last visit to Myanmar came just weeks before the coup.

Yin Yihang, a fellow with the Taihe Institute, a Beijing think tank, said the foreign ministers’ meeting could be a chance for Beijing to encourage peace talks in Myanmar.

“The … meeting is an opportunity to work directly with the Myanmar military, urge it to continue constructive peace talks with all parties in Myanmar, and urge it to ensure the security of China’s interests in Myanmar and the stability of the China-Myanmar border region amid the current political turmoil,” Yin said.

Beijing sees stability in neighbouring countries as a foreign policy priority and analysts say it is unlikely to either condemn or endorse the military regime.

“China’s border security needs cooperation from the Myanmar military, and unlike Western countries, China has more to consider – for example, border issues, the safety of its investments and the Chinese living in Myanmar,” Fan said. “All these issues need cooperation and mutual support from the rulers.”

Asean’s special envoy for the crisis in Myanmar – Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn – was expected to travel to the country on Wednesday and has urged the junta not to keep ousted leader Suu Kyi in prison.

Suu Kyi has been charged with at least 20 offences, which she denies, and has been moved to a prison in the capital Naypyidaw where she is being kept in solitary confinement.

According to monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more than 2,000 civilians have been killed since the coup and over 14,000 arrested as the military seeks to crush dissent.