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Suu Kyi Meets China's Top Leaders, Withholds Criticism

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, concluded a visit to China on Sunday. While there, she met with Xi Jinping, China’s leader and general secretary of the Communist Party. Suu Kyi also visited Shanghai and Yunnan Province, which borders on Burma’s territory.

Just five years ago, her visit would have been unimaginable. China had close ties to Burma’s military junta, which held her under house arrest for the better part of two decades, only releasing her in 2010 as it undertook a tentative, and so far quite limited, political opening.

Despite calls for her to do so, while in China, Suu Kyi did not speak publicly about Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent political prisoners, and a fellow Nobel laureate. Liu, a writer, was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years on subversion charges. His arrest was triggered by his support for Charter 08, a declaration of democratic principles. He won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, while in jail, as Suu Kyi herself did, while under house arrest, in 1991. Suu Kyi only received her award on a visit to Norway in 2012. 

Suu Kyi has often said of China that you don’t choose your neighbors, as if to say pragmatism is necessary in dealing with an enormous, Communist party dictatorship next door. That may be so, but the political opening in Burma that created the potential for democratic change came in large part because the Burmese military junta recognized the need to stem China’s influence. More important, Burma’s people also want to offset China’s influence and look to the US and Europe as models. This is not simply a contest of power but one of political systems.

Navigating the shoals of Burma’s political development is undeniably difficult. The outcome in Burma is still in doubt and depends on a number of factors. One of these is Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to maintain Western pressure on Burma’s government for institutional changes inside Burma. What made the US stick with sanctions for so long was Suu Kyi’s example of steadfast principle. Yet Suu Kyi has disappointed many admirers with her silence on the plight of Burma’s Muslim Rohingyas and the racist monks, led by U Wirathu, who incite violence against them. 

When Suu Kyi at last traveled to Oslo to receive her Nobel Peace Prize, she spoke poignantly of the isolation she and her fellow citizens felt during so many years of struggle. “When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. For me,” she said, “receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders.” Many of her admirers wish she would do just that, both in her foreign travels and at home. If she doesn’t, she might find herself with neither power nor principle. 

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