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Making first visit to China, Aung San Suu Kyi's pragmatism in play

Myanmar's opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to meet China's Xi Jinping in Beijing during a five-day visit. 

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Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi receives flowers from a supporter upon her arrival at Yangon International Airport to depart for China on Wednesday.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in Beijing for high-level talks appears to mark her transformation from opposition icon and Nobel laureate, to pragmatic Asian politician and stateswoman.

During her visit, made at Beijing’s invitation, Ms. Suu Kyi is due to meet President Xi Jinping in her role as opposition leader and as the daughter of General Aung San, a nationalist hero.

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Her five-day trip comes as China has grown unhappy with Myanmar’s generals and the country's partial pivot away from Beijing, which until a few years ago was by far the largest investor in Myanmar. Ordinary people in Myanmar have griped at what they said was Chinese tycoons taking over local markets and grabbing choice land and resources.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said simply that Suu Kyi was in town as part of a meeting of “the heads of two political parties,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party and the National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi chairs. China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said China hoped the Myanmar leader, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest as a prisoner of conscience, would “strengthen communication and understanding between both sides and further their friendly cooperation.”

While Suu Kyi has written prolifically about the values of individual freedom and dignity, she is now trying to master the "art of the possible" in politics – and in the process disappointing those who saw her as a standard bearer for human rights in Asia. 

Her invitation to Beijing comes amid her virtual silence on the mistreatment of Myanmar's Rohingya minority, who have been stripped of citizenship and are persecuted. In May, thousands of Rohingya refugees were found adrift at sea, having been trafficked, while the bodies of others were found in mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia. When the Dalai Lama – China's "other" Nobel laureate – called for Suu Kyi to denounce the treatment of the Rohingya, she also remained silent.

To China watchers, Suu Kyi is the equivalent of Liu Xiaobo – the Chinese Nobel laureate imprisoned for his advocacy of democracy. But there is little chance she will call for Mr. Liu’s release publicly while she is in Beijing, analysts say. That would likely ensure no return trip for her, and show she does not want to play in the power game that China is apparently holding out.

CNN today quoted David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, saying that China's leaders were confident in inviting Suu Kyi that she would not “embarrass her hosts.” He said her refusal to "speak out on many human rights issues in her own country means she is unlikely to speak out about China's denial of democracy and appalling human rights record."

Commercial setbacks

The visit appears to be exploratory for both sides. China has seen Myanmar as a key transit zone for oil and gas pipelines to the Indian Ocean, and as an emerging market. Yet Beijing has faced a series of commercial setbacks since the military junta handed over power in 2011 to a nominally civilian government that has begun opening up to Western companies after the lifting of longstanding sanctions. Bilateral ties have been further strained by border incursions into China by armed rebels. 

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China's engagement with Suu Kyi may be an effort to show Myanmar’s power elite that Beijing can deal with other political players, ahead of elections in Myanmar due in November. While Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president, her party is likely to win many seats in parliament. And China wants to know in advance about her future plans, say analysts. 

However, Suu Kyi’s status as one of the world’s most revered pro-democracy campaigners means her presence on Chinese soil is sensitive, The Guardian writes.

Hu Jia, an outspoken Chinese activist, urged the Burmese politician, who received the Nobel peace prize in 1991, to speak against the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the writer who was awarded the same prize in 2010, after being jailed for calling for democratic reform.

“It is her moral duty. I would certainly do so if I were her,” Hu told the Guardian. “She will not be arrested or silenced. On the contrary, the action would win her praise and support.”