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Dispatches: What Suu Kyi Should Say in China

What will Burmese opposition leader, former political prisoner, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi say to Chinese Communist Party leaders when she lands in Beijing on June 10?

Some items on the to-do list seem quite straightforward, such as calling for the immediate release of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has now served roughly half his 11-year sentence for calling for democracy. That should certainly sound familiar to Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a ceremony in Yangon, Burma on November 20, 2011. © 2011 Reuters

She could also publicly express concerns about mainland Chinese companies’ abusive and environmentally damaging practices in Burma. This would be an easy domestic win for her, as public opinion in Burma is very skeptical about the role of Chinese businesses in the country.  

She might even go so far as to exhort Beijing and Yunnan authorities to allow those fleeing conflict in Burma to seek safety in China – and to ask that they be treated decently. And presumably she and Chinese officials can agree that the Burmese military and ethnic minority armed groups should ensure that they do not target civilians on either side of the border.

It’s less clear whether she’ll tackle some other issues with which she struggles at home, and for which there is no enthusiasm in China. Suu Kyi has been disturbingly reticent on the fate of an ethnic Muslim minority from Burma known as the Rohyinga, even in the face of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them in 2012 that led to massive forced displacement and segregation, sparking a perilous exodus by sea, seeking refuge in neighboring countries. She could make common cause with the Muslim world by pointing out that not a month goes by without Beijing imposing new restrictions on Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic Muslim minority in China’s far west, further stigmatizing the group and fueling tensions. She could call for the respect of minority rights and an end to official and unofficial discrimination.

Suu Kyi’s silence on human rights has damaged her credibility as a leader. While in Beijing she could retake the initiative by diplomatically distinguishing her ideas and policies from those of an autocratic, predatory government that has long supported the autocratic, predatory military government in her own country. If she is silent on rights in China, those questions will only deepen.


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