Analysis: Is China ‘Interfering’ in Ethnic Politics in Burma?

By Saw Yan Naing 15 March 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — An alliance of ethnic armed organizations, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), says that China “is interfering to some extent” in ethnic politics in Burma, particularly regarding the peace process.

The comment came after three days of emergency meetings in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in which a spokesperson for the UNFC, Nai Hong Sar, said that both ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the Burma Army would face “greater challenges” if they keep trying to solve the country’s decades-long conflict by using military means.

“We don’t believe that military means can solve problems. That’s why we are trying to solve them with political means. Problems are emerging. China is now interfering to some extent [with the peace process],” Nai Hong Sar told reporters after the Chiang Mai meetings.

Emphasizing the ongoing fighting in northern Burma launched by the Northern Alliance, a coalition of four ethnic armed groups including the UNFC’s chair—the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—Nai Hong Sar said that greater problems can be expected if both sides rely on military action to address what he sees as political issues. This, he said, could potentially worsen with Chinese interference, he added.

Yet observers believe that the Northern Alliance—which consists of the KIO, the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—is being supported by the China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA).

China has been known to provide military supplies to the UWSA, seen by many as the most powerful ethnic armed organization in Burma, with estimates of 30,000 well-equipped troops. The organization is thought to be closely monitored by Beijing senior officials and diplomats.

Sources in northern Burma also say that China is eager to demonstrate the importance of its role in the peace process. Recently, Chinese authorities have become more active in this regard, attending peace talks, conferences, and meeting with the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups.

In January, China’s Special Envoy of Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang met with both the Burma Army and Northern Alliance representatives separately, and requested that fighting near the Sino-Burmese border be halted during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

U Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst familiar with ethnic affairs on the China-Burma border said that Sun Guoxiang is reportedly pressuring members of the Northern Alliance, and the UWSA, to sign Burma’s controversial nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).

“He [Sun Guoxiang] wants all ethnic armed organizations to sign the NCA, including the UWSA. He is supportive of the NCA. It is kind of interfering [with the peace process]. But, there are some ethnic groups who don’t want to sign the agreement,” said U Maung Maung Soe.

The Arakan Army’s military chief, Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing, told The Irrawaddy in an interview in January that Sun Guoxiang had informed him that the Burmese government was open to talking with the AA.

“We met Sun Guoxiang on Jan. 19, and he conveyed a message that [the Burmese government] was ready for talks. As far as I understood, it was as though he said that the Burma Army chief [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing] wanted us to join talks,” said Tun Myat Naing.

Sun Guoxiang also met with representatives of the KIO, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in Kunming in February, where they discussed China’s role in the peace process; both the KNU and the RCSS are NCA signatories.

Khuensai Jaiyen, director of the Chiang Mai-based Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue and longtime ethnic affairs adviser, told The Irrawaddy that Sun Guoxiang told representatives of the RCSS in Kunming that he doesn’t want people to forget that China was an international witness to the NCA signing in 2015.

“He [Sun Guoxiang] raised five points. Firstly, he said, [China] does not act as a judge in deciding who is right or wrong in Burma’s peace process.’ Secondly, he wants all [respective forces] to participate in the peace process. Thirdly, he wants all forces to sign the NCA. Fourthly, he, won’t force anyone to sign the NCA,” said Jaiyen, who also met Sun Guoxiang alongside RCSS representatives in Kunming.

“Lastly, he said, ‘we [the Chinese observers] don’t want it to be forgotten that we also signed as a witness during the NCA ceremony in 2015,” said Jaiyen.

Jaiyen also suggested that China is playing a political game in Burma in accordance with the emerging political landscape. China’s first priority is its own national interests, he added, pointing out that it would deal with both the Burmese government and other concerned actors in ways which might benefit its own administration.

Quoting a Chinese academic who visited Chiang Mai recently, Jaiyen said that the individual had highlighted how Burma has changed since the 1980s and 1990s, particularly regarding its range of allies.

“In 1980-90, China was the sole friend of Burma. At that time, China was capable of forcing the Wa and Kachin to sign ceasefires. But, now it is not like that anymore—Burma has gotten more friends. So, it is questionable whether Burma still has a real pauk-paw [brotherhood] with China,” Jaiyen explained.

“Since Burma is not like it was in the era of the 1980s and 90s it is not time to force all [ethnic groups] to sign [NCA] at this moment,” he added.

A source close to the now-abolished Myanmar Peace Center said that Chinese authorities and diplomats have often quietly met with leaders of ethnic armed groups in Rangoon, Naypyidaw, Chiang Mai and on the China-Burma border in order to monitor their activities and discuss the peace process.

Veteran journalist Bertil Lintner told The Irrawaddy that Burma has long been concerned about China interfering in its internal affairs.

“China has managed to push all the foreign ‘peacemakers’ out of the game and become the main player in dealings between Burmese government, the military and the ethnic armed groups,” said Lintner.

“It is clear that the Chinese are behind the UWSA, which is setting the agenda and emerging as the most important of the ethnic armed groups. This is not surprising because, as the Chinese see it, they have important strategic and geopolitical interests in Burma which they want to defend,” he added.

“Therefore, also as the Chinese see it, they cannot ‘hand over’ Burma to the West and Western interests,” said Lintner.

In early February, Chinese ambassador to Burma, Hong Liang, told the Myanmar News Agency, a state-run media outlet, that it remained “essential for Sino-Myanmar co-operation to help Myanmar to gain peace, stability and development.”

He also urged all ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA.

“We will support to the best of our ability to push forces in the process of Myanmar Peace. We firmly believe that peace and national reconciliation can succeed through such meetings for dialogue,” he was quoted as saying.