US congratulates Suu Kyi but China makes no move

 Myanmar's National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to media about the upcoming general elections, during a news conference at her home in Yangon November 5, 2015.
Myanmar's National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to media about the upcoming general elections, during a news conference at her home in Yangon November 5, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON • The United States was quick to offer its congratulations to Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, but China avoided doing so yesterday following her party's landslide victory, which has the potential to strain ties with Beijing.

In a call with Ms Suu Kyi, US President Barack Obama "commended her for her tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years to promote a more inclusive, peaceful and democratic Burma", the White House said, using Myanmar's other name.

Mr Obama has visited Myanmar twice over the past three years, hoping to make its transition to democracy a foreign policy legacy of his presidency. He will meet President Thein Sein, among other regional leaders, during a trip to Asia this month.

China has for decades been close to neighbouring Myanmar's authoritarian military leaders, whom voters overwhelmingly rejected in historic polls on Sunday.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was circumspect after Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy secured a landslide election victory yesterday.

"China will continue to extend its assistance and continue with its friendship and all-round mutually beneficial cooperation" with Myanmar, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said following the victory.

Asked if Beijing had extended congratulations to Ms Suu Kyi, Mr Hong did not answer directly.

"We sincerely wish that Myanmar can have political stability and that it can achieve national development," he told a regular briefing.

China was a key backer of the country's brutal military junta - which kept Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than 15 years - while it was under Western sanctions.

Myanmar is already seen as drifting away from its former dependence on Beijing and towards Washington since launching moves towards civilian rule in 2011 which saw sanctions lifted.

China has taken a pragmatic approach to Ms Suu Kyi since it became clear that the party she leads would likely take power. It invited her for a visit in June during which she met President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People.

China frequently congratulates other countries on their successful elections, even ones whose democratic credentials are questioned in the West.

Right on China's doorstep and a key source of natural resources, Myanmar is a sensitive case for the one-party state, which itself has long resisted calls to embrace democratic elections.

Sunday's nationwide vote was the country's first free election in 25 years.

Mr Obama as well as United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon also praised President Thein Sein for successfully staging the historic election, with Mr Ban acknowledging his "courage and vision" to organise an election in which the ruling camp was trounced.

Mr Thein Sein, whose semi-civilian government took power when the junta stepped aside in 2011, and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing have said that they would respect the result and hold reconciliation talks with Ms Suu Kyi.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes noted broad participation by Myanmar's people and a commitment by its rulers to abide by the result.

"This is in many ways a momentous opportunity for the people of Burma," Mr Rhodes said.

"We had been very focused on this election. It is a critical milestone in evaluating Burma's democratic transition."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'US congratulates Suu Kyi but China makes no move'. Print Edition | Subscribe