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Burma's Leader May Face Tough Talk During China Visit

  • Peter Simpson

As Burma's top leader, General Than Shwe, prepares for a visit to his close ally China. While Beijing has long been supportive of Burma's military government, its leader may hear some strong words from his hosts this week.

Senior General Than Shwe, the heard of Burmas military government, touches down in Beijing for a four-day visit Tuesday.

China is one of Burma's closest backers, and the general is expected to seek reassurances from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao of continued economic and diplomatic support.

He also may seek their approval for Burma's November elections.

Burma's government portrays the elections as a key step in shifting to civilian rule after nearly five decades of military domination.

But many Western governments and human rights groups describe the elections as a sham and say the military shows little sign of relinquishing control.

Tough talk expected

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu was vague in announcing plans for the general's visit. She says the leaders will brief each other on what she describes as their respective domestic development.

Most Western nations, including the United States, have imposed economic sanctions on Burma because of its long record of human rights abuses. But China, Burma's third largest trading partner, has rarely criticized its neighbor.

However, political analysts studying the relationship say on this visit, General Than Shwe may hear some tough talk in private.

"They will be saying to Than Shwe that they want to see the elections go ahead in the most credible way possible because China does not want to keep arguing about Burma at the U.N. Security Council, at ASEAN and other international meetings," said Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group Burma Campaign UK.

Political analysts say China values its trade relationship with Burma - in which it buys minerals, timber and natural gas, and sells consumer goods.

But Beijing was upset and issued a rare public rebuke when more than 30,000 refugees poured into China to escape fighting between the Burmese military and the ethnic Chinese Kokang Army last year.

And China's leaders are worried about keeping stability in the region, wanting to avoid a political collapse and a stream of refugees across its borders.

Economic and diplomatic mending

As well as meeting leaders in Beijing, General Than Shwe will visit the Shanghai Expo and Shenzhen, the birthplace of its current economic prowess.

Professor Huan Yunjin is with the School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. He says Burma primarily wants China's approval for its elections - but that it also wants to learn how to open up its economy.

Huan says China cannot impose its own point of view on Burma. But, he says, if General Than Shwe asks for help then Beijing will detail the process of opening up, and instruct Burma on how to do it.

Farmaner with the Burma Campaign UK says Beijing may also want assurances from General Than Shwe.

"They need the regime to provide some stability in the country as they are worried about the country breaking up," Farmaner states. "They don't want a Western puppet on their border, as they are concerned Burma's democracy movement might be more West leaning, which is not something they want right on their border."

Despite tensions in the relationship, there is little sign of a serious breach. Bilateral trade was nearly $3 billion last year. And Premier Wen Jiabao visited Burma in June - the first trip by a senior Chinese leader in almost a decade.

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