Aung San Suu Kyi to make China debut visit amidst cooling relations

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's opposition leader and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi is set to land in China on Wednesday for a debut visit, at a time of cooling relations between the once closely-bonded nations.

Beijing was a key backer of Myanmar's military junta while it was under Western sanctions, providing a much needed international ally for a brutal regime that crushed dissent and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for years.

Now the 69-year-old visits China both as a free woman and a politician ahead of crunch elections slated for November at which her National League for Democracy party (NLD) are expected to make significant gains, if the vote is free and fair.

Nicholas Farrelly, a Myanmar specialist at the Australian National University, said the former political prisoner will not allow China's historical support for a junta that imprisoned her cloud her judgement.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is getting on with the business of trying to win an election. She will be utterly pragmatic about what is at stake and cannot afford to indulge undue sentiment," he told AFP. "She knows that China will play a mighty role in Myanmar's future."

Suu Kyi is visiting Myanmar's giant northern neighbour alongside a delegation of NLD members following an invitation from China's Communist Party. The NLD has said she is expected to meet President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, but no detailed itinerary has yet been released by the Chinese authorities.

The delegation's arrival comes as China's once near monopolistic relationship with Myanmar faces competition from a raft of new suitors.

Since launching reforms in 2011, Myanmar President Thein Sein has embraced the international community following the lifting of sanctions and reached out to the United States, which is hankering after friends in Southeast Asia as part of its Asia "pivot".

Suu Kyi became one of the world's most famous political prisoners during her house arrest for much of the 1990s and 2000s because of her outspoken opposition to military rule.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. But her global image as an upholder of human rights has lost some of its lustre as she has been criticised by rights groups for her reluctance to speak out on the plight of Myanmar's unwanted Rohingya Muslims who are at the centre of a migrant crisis engulfing the region.

While in Beijing, she will likely face calls to raise the case of jailed fellow Nobel laureate Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for circulating a petition calling for democratic reforms.

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

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

Ahead of Suu Kyi's visit, an editorial in China's Global Times took a swipe at Myanmar's democratic transition, saying reforms had "complicated" its politics. "The government is rapidly losing control over society," said the state-run newspaper. But it also held out high hopes for the democracy leader's stance toward Beijing.

"Suu Kyi will become a good friend of China," it said. "She has made some positive remarks about China over the years, and also showed a pragmatic attitude in disputes concerning Chinese projects."

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