November 18, 2015 / 7:04 AM / 2 years ago

Myanmar's Suu Kyi says China ties deserve close attention

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to pay “special attention” to ties with China when her party takes office after its election triumph, and said foreign investments would need public support to help improve relations.

National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

In an interview with China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader said Myanmar had no enemies, but relations with neighbors were more sensitive than others and needed to be carefully handled.

China was Myanmar’s lifeline for two decades when sanctions prevented most Western businesses and financial institutions from engaging with the country during military rule from 1962 to 2011 that left the nation underdeveloped.

But the stakes are now far higher for Beijing, with business competition heating up and the NLD’s anticipated sweeping-out of the last remnants of the old military guard with which Chinese firms enjoyed a close bond.

“Ties between neighbors are always more delicate than that between countries far apart,” Suu Kyi said.

“We’ll pay special attention to our relations in order to make them smooth, effective and clear.”

Mistrust still lingers in Myanmar over China’s involvement in its nationwide peace process. Ties have been strained over Myanmar’s domestic border conflicts, some of which have spilled into China and killed civilians.

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein lifted martial law in the restive Kokang region near China on Tuesday, saying peace had been fully restored following clashes that started in February between the government and rebel militia group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

China sent its envoy to the parliament in Naypyitaw on Wednesday for separate meetings with Suu Kyi and house speaker Shwe Mann. It was unclear what was discussed.

China could face a challenge in maintaining its influence in Myanmar as the United States pays closer attention and Japanese and Asian firms compete for contracts.

Many European and U.S. companies are expected to set up shop after the clear mandate for change in the Nov. 8 election, the first free poll in a quarter century.

Complicating the business picture for China is that its Myanmar investments have historically been unpopular, fuelling perceptions of graft, land grabs, shady deals with generals and the plunder of natural resources.

Without mentioning China specifically, Suu Kyi said it was vital that investors targeting Myanmar won public confidence, and for the government to be transparent.

She said foreign policy was about balance, and China and Myanmar could have a good friendship.

“We maintain friendly ties with friends from far and near,” she said. “There’s no reason establishing a friendship is impossible, if both parties are willing.”

Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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