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Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday, state media said, during her closely watched first visit that China hopes will establish a line of communication with the influential opposition leader.
Suu Kyi met with Xi at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, which did not immediately provide details on what was discussed.
Beijing was a key backer of Burma’s military junta while it was under Western sanctions — most of which have been lifted since 2011 — and a much-needed international ally for a brutal regime that crushed dissent and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than 15 years.
But China-Burma relations have cooled as the country has introduced democratic reforms and opened up economically to the West, while in recent months an ethnic insurgency in the Kokang region of northeastern Shan State has spilled over the border into China.
The visit comes as Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is expected to perform strongly in elections later this year and China looks to develop a rapport with the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Suu Kyi arrived in Beijing on Wednesday with an NLD delegation and met later in the evening with senior Communist Party official Wang Jiarui, Xinhua reported late Wednesday.
Suu Kyi’s meeting with Wang, who is in charge of foreign relations for the party, highlights her non-governmental status and the fact that she is in China at the invitation of the party, not the government.
It is rare for China to invite an opposition leader to visit, given its policy of avoiding involvement in what it calls the internal affairs of other countries.
Still, Suu Kyi’s welcome has all the hallmarks of an official visit — the imposing Great Hall of the People is where Xi regularly welcomes visiting heads of state.
Her treatment in China may send a strong signal to Burma’s military leadership, which have barred her from seeking the presidency.
The 69-year-old Suu Kyi is unable to stand for the office because of a law forbidding people who have been married to foreigners — as she was before her British husband’s death — from running for president, something she is trying to change.
There is also considerable irony in China welcoming a noted democracy advocate and Nobel Prize winner while Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner, languishes in prison after being sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for circulating a petition calling for democratic reforms.
China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that China hopes the visit will bolster “mutual understanding and trust”.
Suu Kyi will also travel to Shanghai and the southwestern province of Yunnan, China’s Beijing Youth Daily newspaper reported on Thursday. The report did not say where in Yunnan she would go, but part of the province borders Burma where the most recent ethnic fighting has occurred.