Analysis: China’s More Proactive Policy Could Hold the Key to Peace in Burma

By Lawi Weng 3 August 2016

So that they could attend the summit in the border town of Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State, the Chinese authorities allowed ethnic armed group leaders to travel freely through Chinese territory from the Muse border in northern Shan State—a marked departure from previous practice.

In 2011, senior Karen National Union leader Mann Nyein Maung was detained by Chinese immigration officers while also transiting through China—to reach the border town, and Kachin Independence Army headquarters, of Laiza in Kachin State—and was handed over to the Burmese authorities. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was released in a 2012 amnesty.

China had also been steadfast in its support for Burma’s military regime prior to the 2011 handover to a nominally civilian government, lending the country an economic lifeline while it remained isolated by stringent sanctions from Western countries.

As the ethnic armed group leaders crossed the border into China at Muse, they were reportedly treated courteously by Chinese immigration officials and allowed to proceed freely on the one hour drive to the border connecting Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State.

Tar Bong Kyaw, secretary of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (a group conspicuously absent from the Mai Ja Yang summit), told The Irrawaddy in Ruili—the Chinese border town opposite Muse—how Chinese authorities “ignore our traveling now.”

He recalled how Chinese intelligence officers would “chase” him in the past—but they now let him travel through China “without restriction.” He commented that he would not have been able to meet the Irrawaddy reporter “in a public place” in previous times.

Conventionally muted on the topic of Burma’s politics and its long-running civil conflicts, China has recently become more vocal and demonstrative in its support of Burma’s peace process.

During the Mai Ja Yang ethnic armed group summit, which ran July 26-30, China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang gave an address on the opening day, stating that China backed “all the forces that support internal peace in Burma.”

Sun Guoxiang announced that China had donated US$3 million to the Joint Monitoring Committee, a body overseeing the commitments of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement reached between the previous government and eight ethnic armed groups in October last year.

This more proactive stance may reflect a growing realization of the importance of peace in Burma for China, given their substantial economic interests in Burma, and their long—and perennially unstable—shared border.

Every day at the Muse border, fleets of trucks can be seeing ferrying large quantities of goods between the two countries. Most of the towns on the border with China that are controlled by ethnic armed groups—such as Mai Ja Yang, Laukkai, Pangshang and Mongla—now resemble Chinese towns, their growth having been driven by investment from Chinese businessmen.

Burma’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army—alongside others such as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang), the National Democratic Alliance Army (Mongla), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army—have benefitted from border trade agreements with Chinese authorities, alongside private Chinese investment.

China’s leverage over a wide portion of Burma’s ethnic armed groups is therefore considerable. China’s role may be key to resolving Burma’s peace process.

In his address at the Mai Ja Yang summit, the Chinese envoy said he expected all ethnic armed groups to attend the “21st Century Panglong” Union Peace Conference scheduled for later this month, where a peace deal including a blueprint for federalism is hoped to be reached.

However, he cautioned that resolution might not come all at once. Using the example of a train undertaking a journey, the envoy said that not all passengers would get off at the same station, but at separate stations along the line.