After nearly six years of fruitless peace talks in Myanmar, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s largest and most heavily armed ethnic force, has asserted its until now dormant power over the process. Behind the UWSA looms China’s security services, a key but often unspoken actor in Myanmar’s northern ethnic wars.
Together they have outmaneuvered and marginalized the Western governments, peace promotion outfits and think tanks that have been intimately involved in Myanmar’s peace process since it was first launched by then President Thein Sein in 2011 and since sustained by Aung San Suu Kyi’s nearly one-year-old elected National League for Democracy party-led government.
Western government-sponsored seminars, workshops and “capacity-building” peace projects have been overshadowed in the past year by the UWSA’s more concrete and impactful initiatives.
Those have included meetings held at its Panghsang headquarters in the autonomous area it controls near the Chinese border, where ethnic armed groups have agreed on common strategies to deal with Myanmar’s central, civil and military authorities. The UWSA has also impacted the battlefield by providing its ethnic allies with munitions to fight against the Myanmar army.
Dismissed for years by Western officials and observers as a drug-trafficking cartel, the UWSA has now emerged as the new collective leader of Myanmar’s ethnic armed resistance – and thus holds the key to peace in the war-torn country.
At the same time, the UWSA has diversified its controlled area’s economy, with its main source of income today coming from tin and rare earth metal exports to China. That means Beijing has not only a strategic but also an economic interest in maintaining close ties to the Wa.
When Thein Sein’s government announced a so-called “national ceasefire agreement” (NCA) with eight ethnic groups, of which only three had fighting forces, the UWSA was not among them. Notably none of the major armed groups in the country’s conflict-ridden north signed the October 2015 deal.
The NCA was viewed at the time as a publicity stunt announced just weeks before the November 2015 election Thein Sein’s military-backed party ran partly on a peace ticket but lost resoundingly to Suu Kyi’s NLD.
Suu Kyi has nonetheless pursued the previous military-backed regime’s policy of securing a national ceasefire agreement before holding political dialogue towards the creation of a federal union – a key demand of most ethnic armed groups and a long-time stumbling block to resolving the civil wars.
Known as 21st Century Panglong, Suu Kyi’s peace drive’s first meeting in August last year was a symbolic nod to the Panglong Agreement signed on February 12, 1947 between her independence hero father, Aung San, and ethnic Shan, Kachin and Chin representatives that paved the way towards the creation of a federal nation in January 1948. That envisaged federal union has been elusive ever since the military seized power in a bloody 1962 coup.
Suu Kyi’s first conference, attended by representatives of various armed and unarmed ethnic groups, failed to accomplish any breakthroughs apart from an agreement to meet again this year. Despite Suu Kyi’s overtures, the military has ramped up fighting in the Kachin and Shan states, including the launch of a new offensive in the latter that just days after the peace initiative’s first meeting.
The fighting in Kachin State, reignited by the military in 2011, has recently been intensified by aerial bombardments that have internally displaced as many as 100,000 civilians in what analysts see as an emerging humanitarian crisis. Despite Thein Sein’s and Suu Kyi’s peace initiatives, Myanmar’s frontier areas are now suffering from some of the most intense fighting seen since the 1980s.
Suu Kyi’s second 21st Century Panglong meeting was initially scheduled for mid-February but has been postponed several times due to incomplete government policies and ethnic group complaints that the process is not “inclusive” because certain ethnic armed groups actively fighting government forces have not been invited to participate. The meeting will now he held at the earliest in mid-March.
To preempt any government initiatives or consultations with ethnic armed groups, the UWSA convened a meeting in late February at Panghsang that underscored the armed militia’s emerging role as the new core of resistance to Suu Kyi’s peace drive.
The meeting was attended by seven major ethnic armies, including the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – all groups which are presently engaged in heavy fighting against the government.
While the UWSA has provided its ethnic armed group allies with arms and ammunition, it has not directly confronted government forces on the battlefield. At the same time, the Myanmar army has so far shied from initiating any kind of military action against the well-equipped, China-backed group.
UWSA leader Bao Youxiang, a veteran guerrilla fighter who speaks Wa and Chinese but not Burmese, opened the meeting by denouncing the 2015 NCA and calling for a completely new approach to peace talks before the second 21st Century Panglong Conference is held.
In a declaration issued on February 24, the seven participants at the Panghsang meeting demanded an “immediate halt to all military offensives in ethnic areas” and the replacement of the 2015 NCA with a “more just ceasefire agreement.” The seven ethnic armies also agreed to “form a political dialogue body to negotiate with the Myanmar government under the leadership of Wa State.”
The government and military — as well as Western-backed foreign peacemakers — have not yet reacted to the new dynamic and demands. One thing is clear, though: a new approach is needed to salvage a peace process that now lies in tatters. What shape and form that process may take remains to be seen, but, as the recent meeting in Panghsang shows, China is now clearly and openly calling shots through its UWSA ally and proxy.