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Lobbyist says Myanmar junta wants to improve relations with the West, spurn China

World56 minutes ago (Mar 06, 2021 12:20PM ET)

(C) Reuters. General Min Aung Hlaing speaks during a meeting

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Israeli-Canadian lobbyist hired by Myanmar’s junta said on Saturday that the generals are keen to leave politics after their coup and seek to improve relations with the United States and distance themselves from China.

Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli military intelligence official who has previously represented Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s military rulers, said Myanmar’s generals also want to repatriate Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

The United Nations says more than 50 demonstrators have been killed since the Feb. 1 coup when the military overthrew and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won polls in November by a landslide.

On Friday, a U.N. special envoy urged the Security Council to take action against the junta for the killings of protesters.

In a telephone interview, Ben-Menashe said he and his firm Dickens & Madson Canada had been hired by Myanmar’s generals to help communicate with the United States and other countries who he said “misunderstood” them.

He said Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader since 2016, had grown too close to China for the generals’ liking.

“There’s a real push to move towards the West and the United States as opposed to trying to get closer to the Chinese,” Ben-Menashe said. “They don’t want to be a Chinese puppet.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has denounced the coup and imposed sanctions on the army and businesses it controls. A U.S. State Department official declined to comment.

Ben-Menashe said he was speaking from South Korea after a visit to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, where he signed an agreement with the junta’s defense minister, General Mya Tun Oo. He said he would be paid an undisclosed fee if sanctions on the military are lifted.

A spokesman for the military government did not answer calls seeking comment on Saturday.

Ben-Menashe said he had been tasked with contacting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to get their support for a plan to repatriate the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled military assaults in 2016 and 2017 in which soldiers killed indiscriminately, raped women and torched houses, according to a U.N. fact-finding mission.

“It’s basically trying to get them some funding for the return of what they call the Bengalis,” said Ben-Menashe, using a term some in Myanmar use for the Rohingya to imply they are not from the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people have protested in almost every town and city in Myanmar for weeks demanding the release of Suu Kyi and respect for the results of November’s election, which the military says was marred by fraud.

Ben-Menashe said the junta could prove the vote was rigged, and that ethnic minorities were blocked from voting, but provided no evidence. Election observers have said there were no major irregularities.

He said that on his two visits to the country since the coup, “disturbances weren’t that widespread” and the protest movement was not supported by most Myanmar people.

Ben-Menashe said police were handling protests, not the military, despite photos and video footage of armed soldiers at the demonstrations. He argued that the military was best placed to oversee a return to democracy after the coup it staged.

“They want to get out of politics completely,” he said, “but it’s a process.”

Lobbyist says Myanmar junta wants to improve relations with the West, spurn China

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