YANGON (Reuters) - The National League for Democracy was forged in an uprising against one-party rule. Its activists spent years in jail under Myanmar’s military junta. But since taking power three years ago, the party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has found an unlikely ally – the Chinese Communist Party.
The friendship has blossomed in high-level exchanges between Suu Kyi and Chinese leaders, but also in interactions between party members on visits that mix tours of container terminals or education projects with boozy dinners and shopping trips.
The trips are part of a push to make Myanmar a vital stop on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, offering to build deep-sea ports, hydropower dams and economic zones in a country desperate for investment.
Reuters interviewed more than 20 party members and lawmakers who have visited China on expenses-paid trips, through which Beijing hopes to overcome historic distrust and fears among many in Myanmar of becoming indebted to their much larger neighbour.
“In the past it was only a relationship between two governments – (China) did business with the military generals and Myanmar people didn’t have good feelings towards them,” said Aung Shin, who edits the party’s newspaper.
The invites have flowed since Myanmar’s relations with Western countries soured following their sharp criticism of a 2017 army crackdown in its northwestern Rakhine state from which 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh.
China lent its neighbour support at the United Nations Security Council, when the West was pushing for a stronger international response to allegations of killings, mass rape and arson by Myanmar forces.
NLD stalwarts such as Aung Shin, a former political prisoner, have welcomed China’s hospitality.
“They want to show that they are not like before, so they invited us and showed us,” said Aung Shin, who has been on at least 10 junkets to China since 2013.
Some say they have also been impressed with the ability of China’s one-party system to drive through development projects.
Many countries extend invitations to politicians of other nations to deepen alliances, but China’s “soft power” efforts in Myanmar have been comprehensive.
The NLD has sent at least 20 delegations to China since 2016, said party spokesman Myo Nyunt. China has also extended invites to the military-aligned opposition and other parties, as well as civil society and the media.
In interviews, NLD members said China uses the visits to showcase its state-led approach to building infrastructure, which brooks no opposition.
On the trips, several participants told Reuters they were also served luxurious meals washed down with top-notch baijiu, a strong Chinese liquor, though not all delegates drank.
Helen Aye Kyaw visited China for the first time in June as a member of an NLD women’s group at the invitation of the All-China Women’s Federation, touring a school for Communist Party cadre to study Chinese efforts to eliminate rural poverty.
The group was trailed by Chinese doctors in case anyone got sick, she said, and during a shopping trip in Beijing the women were given 480 yuan (about $70) spending money.
“We were treated as VIPs,” said Helen Aye Kyaw.
Despite such perks, NLD leaders say the party’s members are not unduly influenced by the visits, which they say are useful learning experiences.
“Myanmar politicians are not stupid. We can handle China,” said Myo Yan Naung Thein, a leading NLD researcher.
In a written response to Reuters’ questions about the trips, China’s foreign ministry said engagement with Myanmar political parties, including the NLD, was conducted on a basis of equality and “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.
“China and Myanmar are friendly neighbours,” it said, adding that infrastructure initiatives were “in accordance with the principles of equal consultation and mutual benefit”.
“The Communist Party of China does not ‘import’ foreign models, nor ‘exports’ Chinese models, and does not require other countries to ‘copy’ the Chinese way.”
China was initially suspicious of Suu Kyi, who had been lauded for years in the West as a champion of democracy.
“They wanted to know whether she is a stooge of the USA or something like that, how much her thoughts and her ideology is Westernized, but they soon found that she’s quite independent,” said NLD central executive committee member Han Tha Myint.
Since the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi has visited few countries that joined calls for action against Myanmar for the alleged abuses against the Rohingya - which Myanmar denies.
“She chooses the country to visit based on what our nation will get from that visit,” said party spokesman Myo Nyunt, “not that country’s inclination to dictatorship or democracy, because our country is in need of close friends.”
Some analysts and diplomats believe China is exploiting the chill in Myanmar’s relations with the West.
“China is extracting a high price for its Security Council umbrella: the Belt and Road,” said a Western diplomat in Yangon.
Beijing’s foreign ministry described that assertion as “purely nonsense”. China also rejects broader criticism that its infrastructure drive is saddling countries with unsustainable debts, insisting Belt and Road is a “win-win” proposition.
NLD officials say Suu Kyi’s government is putting Myanmar’s interests first in negotiations with China.
Interviews with NLD figures who have taken part in such visits give a flavour of how China has sought to win new friends among Myanmar’s emerging political class.
The most recent project to be associated with China’s Silk Road plan, an extension of the former colonial capital Yangon, met with opposition from regional lawmakers over how much land Myanmar was giving over to the project and the fairness of revenue-sharing arrangements, after China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was signed on to submit plans in May last year.
Within months, a junket had been arranged. Yangon regional lawmakers visited China in September 2018, where they met CCCC representatives and visited its Yangshan port near Shanghai, according to two participants and Facebook posts from the visit.
CCCC did not respond to Reuters questions about the visit and the Yangon project.
“This is persuasion in the interest of their project. We understand that,” said Sandar Min, an NLD lawmaker known for being fiercely outspoken, who joined the trip. “They put us in good hotels, treated us to nice meals.”
The visit would not prevent her from voicing her concerns over the New Yangon City project, she said, but had given her pause for thought about China’s development model, drawing a contrast with the protests that often greet projects at home.
“Their country developed very fast within 20 years and even the roads became very good. Is that because of their one-party political system?” she said. “In their country, if they do a project, no one opposes.”
Another controversial Chinese project in Myanmar is the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam in conflict-torn northern state of Kachin, which was suspended in 2011 amid concerns it would be environmentally damaging and mainly benefit China.
In October 2018, Aung Shin, the party newspaperman, led a nine-strong Myanmar delegation that visited at least five dams on China’s Yellow River.
Three other participants said they were under the impression the trip was paid for by the State Power International Corporation (SPIC), the giant state-owned enterprise behind the hydropower project.
Aung Shin said the invitation for the trip came from the Chinese Communist Party, although he said he did not know who paid for the hospitality.
SPIC did not respond to Reuters questions.
“They explained to us not only about dams but also about things that they arranged for the local villagers,” said Tin Aye, a regional NLD lawmaker from Kachin, who joined Aung Shin’s delegation. “I am not the decision maker, but I think it’s better to do the project.”
Reporting by Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson