Analysis: What Role Will China Play in Burma’s Peace Process?

By Nyein Nyein 6 February 2017

China wants ethnic armed groups in northern Burma to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in order to ease fighting near the Sino-Burma border, China’s ambassador to Burma said in an interview with the state-run New Light of Myanmar on Sunday.

“By signing the NCA, battles can be avoided and there can be guarantees for peace and stability along the China-Myanmar border,” said Ambassador Hong Liang, adding that in order to stop the conflict, “respective parties need to be well convinced of each other.”

The ambassador said they encouraged the respective groups remain in “close contact” for discussions and urged them to overcome “misunderstandings,” which he blamed as the main cause of ethnic armed organizations’ reluctance to sign the NCA. Only eight out of the country’s more than 20 armed groups signed the pact in 2015.

Fighting is ongoing the northern Shan and Kachin states, between the Burma Army and the Northern Alliance, which is comprised of the Ta’ang Nationalities Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

China has pledged its support to Burma’s peace process under the civilian-led National League for Democracy government, and has been attempting to facilitate talks between the government and active ethnic armed groups in the northeast of the country. In January, China’s Special Envoy of Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang met with both Tatmadaw and Northern Alliance representatives separately, and requested that fighting near the Sino-Burma border be halted during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Has the Tatmadaw Accepted All-Inclusivity?

“China’s goodwill to help with negotiation meetings is a good thing, as their pressure to lessen conflict has a huge impact,” said Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of the ethnic armed alliance the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), whose members have not signed the NCA.

The UNFC maintains that in order for its members to sign the NCA, all ethnic armed groups must be included in the peace process, Nai Hong Sar reiterated, a reference to the organizations previously excluded—the TNLA, MNDAA and AA.

“We need a good platform for us to sign it,” he said.

The UNFC has been negotiating with the government’s peace commission regarding concise guarantees on both military and political issues, including the terms of the ceasefire’s Joint Monitoring Committee and the necessity of a tripartite political dialogue. It is easier to negotiate with the government than the Tatmadaw,” Nai Hong Sar said, as “they [Tatmadaw] hold onto their position strongly and thus make us hard to negotiate.”

“We want to know clearly whether the Tatmadaw has accepted all-inclusivity,” Nai Hong Sar added.

If the Tatmadaw has changed their attitudes towards the excluded groups, insiders say it would do well to make such a shift known, as the army’s attitude remains key in moving forward with the peace process.

As China is in a position to influence the Burmese government, Arakanese lawmaker U Ba Shein favors Chinese involvement, saying that he feels that it could make the peace process “better and stronger.”

Dr. Emma Leslie, director of the Cambodia-based Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said, “What will make a positive impact is the political will of all parties to address the fundamental issues and grievances of ethnic groups in Myanmar.”

“Peace processes’ success depends on the political will of the parties to come to a just agreement and then implement it in a timely manner,” she said, adding, “That will end the conflict.”

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that ending armed conflict in Burma is a top priority of her administration. She created a peace fund, which receives donations from Burmese nationals, while international donations go through the Joint Coordination Body for the Peace Process. President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay recently told The Irrawaddy that the government has been cautious in accepting international aid concerning the peace process, in an effort to be seen as free from a “donor-driven agenda.”

In early January, China contributed US$1 million to Burma’s peace process through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, out of a total pledge of $3 million by 2020.

Economic Investments

Arakanese lawmaker U Ba Shein said China’s support would be helpful in fostering a “smooth relationship” with the government, concerning existing economic investments in the country and further investments in areas including Arakan State.

China wants to implement a “One Belt, One road” Asian cooperation strategy, to promote its agenda of economic and social developments. Burma plays an integral role in linking China to India in connection with the scheme.

To meet energy needs, China has constructed a gas and oil pipeline across Burma, from Kyaukphyu deep seaport to Kunming in Yunnan Province. However, the pipeline runs through conflict zones, including those in Arakan and Shan States.

However, despite winning a tender to implement a special economic zone (SEZ) in Kyaukphyu, Arakan State, the project has yet to start. Another SEZ in Muse, on the Shan-China border, has been postponed due to fighting in the area. Ambassador Hong Liang emphasized the country’s desire for those projects to begin as soon as possible, adding that he believes they will benefit both Burma and China.

When fighting intensified following the Northern Alliance’s initial offensive on Nov. 20, carried out to draw attention to the Tatmadaw’s long-running operations in the region, border trade in Muse was brought to a halt for 10 days; trade value has also dropped in the last year.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, quoted in the New Light of Myanmar on Feb. 4, the value of trade between the two countries for the 2016-2017 fiscal year had decreased nearly US$28 million from the previous year.

Trade totalled $4.84 billion for the last 10 months of the fiscal year—it was $4.87 billion during the same period one year earlier.

Arakan State remains afflicted by extreme poverty, U Ba Shein said, explaining why he welcomes any investment that would bring socially responsible job opportunities.

“We hope that the current NLD government, which is the civilians’ government, would consider helping the locals more than the previous military governments did,” he added.