Burma’s President Thein Sein’s mission in New York City this week is to present the new face of Burma to a worldwide audience when he addresses the UN General Assembly on Thursday, stressing his government’s commitment to democracy.
His goal is to open the door wide for development aid and the total lifting of all US sanctions against Burma, which have burdened the country for a decade.
During the past week, Thein Sein, at a trade fair in China, reassured leaders there that Burma’s No. 1 investor has nothing to fear from Burma’s new embrace of the US and the West.
A stream of top Chinese officials including Wu Bangguo, the chairman of China’s National People’s Congress standing committee, visited Thein Sein in Naypytaw recently to reaffirm those close ties.
Myanmar and China signed nine bilateral economic and trade co-operation pacts and two financial transactions agreements during the visits.
“Myanmar is of huge geostrategic concern to Beijing, which wants some reassurance that its longstanding position as the country’s closest partner isn’t going to vanish overnight,” Thant Myint-U, a historian and member of Thein Sein’s advisory panel, told the Financial Times in an article published this week.
“The China visit was about many things . . . but it’s important for the president to ensure that fast-improving relations with the west won’t unnecessarily antagonize China. Washington seems to understand that Myanmar needs to have a balanced set of relations," he said.
One of China’s goals is to restart the controversial US$ 3.7 billion Myitsone dam project in Kachin State, which Thein Sein postponed last year after strong domestic opposition. Backstage discussions have been underway.
Chinese officials have been engaged in a public relations campaign in Burma, centered around building village schools, medical clinics, drilling water wells and providing other community improvement projects designed to show goodwill.
However, recently, thousands of rural villagers have conducted a month-long protest over a Chinese-owned copper mine, which villagers say confiscated their land unfairly.
While visiting China, Thein Sein said in a statement that the Burmese people would “never forget” that “China for a long time provided a large amount of sincere support and help and stood at Myanmar’s side at the most difficult of times.”
“Myanmar is at present in a transitional phase, but it pays great attention to developing relations with China, and its policy of seeing China as a true friend has not changed,” he told the Chinese vice president, according to wire reports.
Among the accomplishments that Thein Sein can be expected to highlight in his UN speech are the release of hundreds of political prisoners, cease-fire agreements with most of the ethnic armed groups, an easing in media censorship, new labour laws and a law providing the right to demonstrate. He can also tout a new foreign investment law, which he has sent back to Parliament with suggestions on how to make it fairer to foreign investors.