With preparations underway for yet another round of peace talks between the Myanmar government, military, and ethnic armed groups, the country’s civil war is intensifying on nearly every front.
The Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, has recently unleashed a ferocious offensive against the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north, while fighting has ramped up in areas of northern Shan State, including the Kokang area inhabited by ethnic Chinese.
China, the only outside power that has any noteworthy influence over Myanmar’s ethnic rebels, could yet step in to help resolve the escalating crisis. On Sunday, it condemned fighting near its border that caused people to flee into its territory, according to news reports.
In a statement, China’s Embassy in Myanmar called on all parties to “exercise restraint”, implement a ceasefire and prevent the situation from escalating, the reports said. The statement also said it had made “solemn representations” to the government.
But China’s role as a peacemaker and interlocutor in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts is not straightforward, nor always solemn. Well-placed sources assert Beijing is playing a complex diplomatic game by leveraging the peace process to achieve wider strategic goals, including access to the strategic port of Kyaukpyu in western Rakhine state that opens on the Indian Ocean.
China has long sought to secure the so-called “Myanmar Corridor” extending from southwestern China to the Indian Ocean, a vital plank of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion dollar project to build and upgrade the region’s infrastructure to China’s advantage.
If China can help Myanmar achieve peace through its influence over ethnic rebels, it would certainly want something in return to secure those long-term plans, the same sources say.
It’s a carrot and stick approach. Chinese weaponry has somehow found its way to the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the most powerful group renowned for its drug-trafficking within a seven-party alliance known as the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) to which the KIA also belongs.
While the KIA has not benefited significantly from Chinese weaponry funneled through the UWSA, other FPNCC members — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan state, the Shan State Army-North, and the Arakan Army in Rakhine state — all have.
The seventh member of the alliance, a mixed Shan and Akha hill-tribe group based in Mong La in eastern Shan state, appears to have its own sources of Chinese-made weaponry. It is a matter of conjecture to what extent the Chinese are condoning the transfer of weapons from UWSA to its ethnic armed allies.
Another part of Beijing’s strategy, the sources contend, is to play off various factions within the UWSA against each other to be able to exert more influence within the organization.
However, that may have contributed to a recent rift which erupted between UWSA supremo Bao Yuxiang and his brothers, who are all ethnic Wa, and Wei Xuegang and his brothers, ethnic Chinese businessmen who control the UWSA’s finances.
Wei Xuegang, who also goes by the Myanmar name Sein Win, has massive investments in jade mines in Kachin state and other business ventures throughout the country. In that capacity, he is close to many senior Myanmar military officers.
Wei also has excellent contacts with Chinese officials, and because he is not a Wa his long-term business interests may jibe more closely with those of China.
In January 2005, a US court charged Bao, Wei and their respective brothers in absentia for drug trafficking. Although Bao has grown wealthy from the trade, he is also a Wa nationalist who controls the army. Sources also say that he lacks Wei’s business acumen.
The intra-UWSA rift is already drawing parallels to the 1996 surrender of ethnic Shan drug warlord Khun Sa. His Mong Tai Army (MTA) also had two components: ethnic Shans, who made up most of the fighting force, and ethnic Chinese who ran his heroin business.
Only the latter knew about secret talks with the government, which led to a deal with the then military regime. The Shans within his organization were kept in the dark until a Myanmar army helicopter landed in the MTA’s Homong headquarters in January 1996.
Khun Sa then disbanded his army and retied in the then capital Yangon, where he died in 2007. His drug-dealing partners, meanwhile, established themselves in business in Myanmar. The Shans were devastated — and some of them later raised a new, predominantly Shan army known as the Restoration Council of Shan State.
It is too early to say if a similar development will take place within the UWSA. The rift could be mitigated if the Bao brothers, with the Chinese acting as go-betweens, also begin to advocate for a deal with the government.
That would necessarily derail the FPNCC as a united front and dry up arms supplies to other members of the alliance. In the end, if such a proposal is made, the Bao brothers and their affiliates would find it hard to go against the wishes of the Weis — and by association China’s security establishment.
Chinese insiders report that Bao and other group leaders held a secret meeting in Kunming from December 13-15 last year and then again in Jinghong in southern Yunnan from February 3-4, where the Chinese reportedly expressed their views on the peace process.
Exactly what was said is not known, but it is clear that the Chinese don’t want the UWSA to get involved in renewed fighting in the north that has recently spilled across its borders.
But some sources suggest China may also seek to split the FPNCC, making it easier to manipulate and control its component ethnic groups by keeping them both under the same roof but also disunited.