Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China next week, Beijing says

BEIJING (AFP) - Myanmar's opposition leader and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi will visit China next week, Beijing said on Friday, amid cooling relations between the two countries.

Beijing was a key backer of Myanmar's military junta while it was under Western sanctions, but President Thein Sein has bolstered ties with the United States since launching political reforms in 2011.

Suu Kyi's opposition party is set to contest elections in November, which the US has backed as a key stepping stone towards democracy.

"At the invitation of the Communist Party of China, a delegation of the National League for Democracy of Myanmar led by Chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi will pay a visit to China from June 10th to 14th," China's ruling Communist Party said on an official website.

It was not clear from the statement which Chinese officials Suu Kyi would meet.

In recent months relations between China and Myanmar have cooled as an ethnic insurgency raging in the southeast Asian country spilled over its border with the Asian giant.

Conflict in the Kokang region, where ethnic Chinese rebels are fighting the Myanmar army, has claimed scores of lives.

In March a Myanmar warplane dropped a bomb in a sugarcane field, killing five Chinese people and injuring eight others.

Beijing was infuriated and responded by sending fighter jets to patrol the border area, with its Premier Li Keqiang promising to "resolutely" protect citizens.

Economic issues have also strained the hitherto tight bonds between the two countries, more so as reforms expose the formerly junta-run nation to public opinion.

Anti-China sentiment frequently emerges in resource-rich Myanmar, where many worry about the impact of Chinese investment in an impoverished country where the military still own significant holdings in a range of companies.

Small but regular demonstrations were held earlier this year outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon and its consulate in Mandalay following the fatal shooting of a female protester near a Chinese-backed mine.

Suu Kyi became Myanmar's most famous political prisoner when she was kept under house arrest during much of the 1990s and 2000s because of her outspoken opposition to military rule.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Although her star power is expected to steer her party to an election victory this November, Suu Kyi is barred by a junta-scripted clause in the constitution from the presidency - a clause she is battling to change.

Her global image as an upholder of human rights has also lost some of its lustre, with her slow and measured response to the plight of Myanmar's unwanted Rohingya Muslims earning her censure from rights groups.

While in Beijing, she will likely face calls to raise the case of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for circulating a petition calling for democratic reforms. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

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