Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 19, 2016. Photo: AFP/Rolex Dela Pena/Pool
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Beijing, August 19, 2016. Photo: AFP/Rolex Dela Pena

Myanmar’s government and various ethnic armed groups are tentatively scheduled to meet next month for a third round of peace talks that have so far failed to deliver any tangible results.

Now, China’s rising influence over the talks has complicated what was already a tangled process due to widely divergent perceptions of the ultimate purpose of the exercise.

Myanmar’s civil and military authorities have insisted that armed ethnic groups sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before any substantial talks are held on the country’s political future.

The military has also made clear that it wants to implement a “DDR”, or disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, program for ethnic armies as soon as possible. Most armed groups view DDR as tantamount to surrender and have countered that political talks must be held before signing the NCA.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace initiative, known as 21st Century Panglong, has received rich backing from Western nations that view peace as essential to consolidating the country’s democratic transition.

Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends an award ceremony at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, October 22, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Vincent Kessler 

The European Union, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Britain and Australia have all poured in millions of dollars into what has become known cynically in some Yangon circles as “the peace industrial complex.”

China, which has huge strategic interests in neighboring Myanmar, including a pipeline that aims to diversify its vital fuel shipment routes, does not necessarily want the same type of peace that Suu Kyi and the West apparently envision.

Observers familiar with Beijing’s thinking on Myanmar say it wants “strategic stability” it can control and which protects its long-term interests.

Continued war in border areas that cause waves of refugees to flee into Chinese territory is clearly not in Beijing’s interest. At the same time, a successful NCA followed by a DDR program would deprive China of the leverage it currently has over certain armed ethnic organizations, including the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Beijing has long used that leverage as a bargaining chip with Naypyidaw in pursuit of its wider strategic agenda.

Seven ethnic armed groups, mostly based in Myanmar’s north, recently formed the Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). In April, the umbrella group issued a counterproposal to the government’s plan that called for political dialogue towards federalism. It also called for the withdrawal of Myanmar forces from all ethnic conflict areas.

United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Wa territory in northeast Myanmar October 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Led by the UWSA, the FPNCC also includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army active among the ethnic Palaungs in northern Shan state; the Shan State Army; the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang in northeastern Shan state; the National Democratic Alliance Army in eastern Shan state; and the Arakan Army in western Rakhine state.

China is the only country with influence over the FPNCC, and Beijing is clearly leveraging that control in pursuit of its in-country interests. That includes completion of the strategically important deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in Rakhine state and its surrounding special economic zone.

The port is a crucial link in China’s US$1 trillion ‘One Belt One Road’ infrastructure development initiative and its rising strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

The escalating crisis in Rakhine state, where more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingyas have fled into neighboring Bangladesh since late August, has both bolstered and undermined China’s position.

The West has unanimously condemned the Myanmar military’s brutal onslaught and even threatened to re-impose sanctions which were recently lifted in reward for a shift towards more political openness. China, which maintains good relations with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, has not criticized either and last week even offered to mediate a refugee repatriation agreement.

Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

While the Kyaukphyu port and pipelines are located far from the conflict concentrated in northern Rakhine state, the refugee crisis has nevertheless caused concern in Beijing.

Renewed hostilities in northern Kachin state have already torpedoed US$3.6 billion plans to build the massive Myitsone dam, from which 90% of the power generated would have been exported to China, and strained bilateral relations.

If a more widespread insurgency breaks out in Rakhine state, a possibility as Rohingya militants close ranks and regroup, it could jeopardize China’s interests.

Western governments’ apparent inability to fully comprehend China’s designs for Myanmar will only marginalize the peace-oriented initiatives and nongovernmental organizations they richly support.

While Western donor funds flow to support politically correct-sounding projects that promote the role of civil society, women and other disenfranchised groups in the peace process, China is adroitly playing power politics to protect its vital interests.

And a fast and final solution to Myanmar’s civil wars is apparently not part of Beijing’s plan.

Shan State Army – South soldiers training at their headquarters in Loi Tai Leng, in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State. Photo: AFP/KC Ortiz

In October 2015, then president Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government proudly announced that eight ethnic groups had signed the NCA. Only three of the groups were armed organizations while the other five were small, local outfits that were never involved in serious warfare.

In retrospect, it was a face-saving gesture by Thein Sein, who wanted to show Western nations that something had been achieved from its lavishly funded Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) ahead of the November 2015 election.

Hopes were high when Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy-led elected government took over in March 2016. The ineffectual MPC was disbanded and a new outfit known as the National Reconciliation and Peace Center was formed in July that year.

While Suu Kyi looked to end the MPC’s wasteful and ineffectual practices, she did not change the previous regime’s core policy of insisting on an NCA before peace talks. To date, groups representing 80% of all armed rebels have refused to sign the NCA.

That likely suits China just fine. While the FPNCC’s strongest and best equipped member, the UWSA, should not be viewed as a mere Chinese puppet, its weaponry including surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery and armored fighting vehicles all comes from China.

While the UWSA has emerged at the core of the China-backed ethnic alliance, the US still has rewards out for certain Wa leaders for drug trafficking, making it even harder for Western nations to play a meaningful role as intermediaries between the government and rebels.

While the UWSA has emerged at the core of the China-backed ethnic alliance, the US still has rewards out for certain Wa leaders for drug trafficking, making it even harder for Western nations to play a meaningful role as intermediaries between the government and rebels.

UWSA leaders are no doubt close to and take advise from China, meaning the FPNCC’s counter peace proposal was at least tacitly endorsed by Beijing. Indeed, the FPNCC said in an August 24 statement that “to be successful, we request China to [be] more involved in [the] Myanmar peace process.”

While the West relies mainly on NGOs and civil society initiatives to pursue its vision of peace in Myanmar, China has shrewdly harnessed the power of the ethnic armed groups themselves to pursue its competing interests.

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