As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for her first trip to China since her National League for Democracy party swept Burma’s elections last November, her to-do list could be impossibly long: managing a new and delicate era in bilateral relations, development aid, the resolution of the stalled Myitsone Dam project, and disputes about management of their shared border. There’s also the complex peace process involving the Burmese government, its military, and the country’s ethnic armed groups – some of them backed by China.
Suu Kyi should make sure two other issues get attention. In 2015, roughly 27,000 people displaced by fighting in Burma’s northern Shan State sought refuge in China. Additionally, thousands of Kachin refugees remain in China’s Yunnan province from the conflict that raged in Burma from 2011 to 2013. Another 100,000 internally displaced persons are in squalid camps in Kachin State. Nongovernmental organizations that have visited the camps in Burma and China have called conditions deplorable and cramped, with poor sanitation. Yet international aid is being reduced, and abuses by the Burmese military continue to be reported.
China has not allowed officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to visit the camps in Yunnan to assess conditions. While Suu Kyi no doubt plans discuss the peace process with Chinese leaders, it’s not clear that the status of refugees and internally displaced persons will make the agenda. If China wants to further the nascent peace process, it’s crucial that the fate of these people gets serious attention.
Suu Kyi should also use her platform and pro-democracy credentials to call for the release of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from prison in China. When she visited China in June 2015, as leader of the opposition, she did not publicly raise his case. This disappointed many Chinese democracy activists, particularly given that her release from years of house arrest was hastened by winning that same prize, and by having other Nobel laureates, heads of state, and prominent rights activists intervene on behalf of her freedom.
This is a new era in Burma-China relations. Burma and China are heading in different directions, with one country taking steps towards ending authoritarian rule, while the other makes it state policy. Will Suu Kyi demonstrate leadership in support of human rights beyond Burma’s borders? Will China, reflecting on its low standing in Burma after decades of support for the military junta, find a way to work with the new government to improve the lives of the Burmese people?