Top military officers from China and Myanmar met yesterday to discuss ways to improve border stability. The two sides promised to work together to promote peace and security along their shared frontier. But the question of how they will achieve this remains to be answered, given the deep distrust that exists between the Myanmar army and many of the armed ethnic groups in the area.
China invited Myanmar army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to visit China for five days at a time when the international community has put intense pressure on the military and the government over their handling of the Rohingya crisis.
Some Myanmar-based observers had expected that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing would discuss the Northern Alliance of seven armed ethnic groups with his Chinese hosts, in addition to talks about buying weapons from China.
The military TV channel ‘Myawaddy’ reported yesterday that Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing and some other generals met their counterparts from China and discussed ways to improve the two countries’ military relationship.
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing thanked China for inviting him to the meeting, using on old Burmese phrase, ‘Pauk Paw’, to describe the relationship between China and Myanmar. The term means the two countries are old and good friends.
“By having this meeting, the military relationship between Myanmar and China will improve. And a better military relationship will greatly support border stability and the peace process in the country,” Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing was quoted as saying by Myawaddy TV.
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing expressed his gratitude to China for its support over the “Rakhine case” saying, “China stands at the front of the international community beside Myanmar, and Myanmar thanks China a lot for it.”
In turn, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Gen. Li Zuocheng highlighted China’s support for the peace process and noted that it had provided disaster relief to Myanmar in recent years. China will continue to help Myanmar, he said, adding that the two militaries would play a leading role.
“Close cooperation among the two militaries could be the best way to solve the border conflict,” Gen. Li said.
The Chinese general also thanked Myanmar for supporting its position on the South China Sea.
The two military leaders said China and Myanmar would work together on military training, health and education. The two countries also will cooperate to fight terrorism and work hand in hand to ensure border stability, Gen. Li said.
Despite the pledges of co-operation, it is hard to see how China will be able to ensure border stability unless the ethnic armed groups in northern Shan state are allowed to participate in the peace process in Myanmar.
There are seven ethnic armed groups that have a presence on the border with China, and Beijing has sought to play a leading role as a mediator between the Myanmar military and the ethnic groups.
The seven groups — the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) — are members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which has so far refused to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). China initially sought to bring all seven groups into the peace process, but it could not convince the Myanmar Army to agree to this.
Two weeks ago, China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang met the leaders of the FPNCC and informed them that the Myanmar Army would not accept three armed groups — the TNLA, AA and MNDAA — in the peace talks as it considers them terrorist groups.
The Northern Alliance has said it will only meet the Myanmar Army as one group. But, the Army has insisted on meeting each group separately.
Peace talks stand off
Recently, some army representatives from the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) met with the UWSA and NDAA in Pangkham, the de facto capital of Wa state.
Nyi Rang a UWSA spokesperson posted a message that his group had asked the NRPC to remove TNLA, AA and MNDAA from its list of terrorist groups as it complicated the peace process.
He further mentioned in the Facebook post that the central government wanted the UWSA to sign the NCA based on the ceasefire agreement, but the UWSA leader told the peace commission that it would not do so until the process included the Northern Alliance.
The UWSA said it had intended to bring all the leaders of the armed groups to meet the Peace Commission. But, the commission officials met only representative of the UWSA and NDAA, disappointing the other armed groups.
At his recent meeting, the Chinese envoy Sun Guoxiang put pressure on the Northern Alliance to sign the NCA and join the Panglong conference.
But the armed leaders said there was no point seeking to participate until the Myanmar Army recognized them as lawful groups.
Brig.-Gen. Tar Phone Kyaw of the TNLA recalled what Sun Guoxiang told them, “Mr. Sun expressed clearly that they won’t meet the FPNCC. They will only meet each organization individually.”
He added that three of the groups — the TNLA, AA and MNDA – would not get the same status as the other armed groups.
This issue of the “terrorist list”thus remains the main sticking point for the peace process. And despite yesterday’s pledges by the military leaders of both China and Myanmar, there will be no stability along the border unless the Myanmar Army recognize the TNLA, AA and MNDAA. Amid the international efforts to isolate the Myanmar Army over the Rakhine crisis, China has an important opportunity to convince the Myanmar Army to accept these three armed groups as participants in the peace process.
China’s role on the border
Thousands of Kachin refugees remain near the border with China and are dependent on being allowed to cross the border to find work and food, although they are periodically arrested and pushed back to the Myanmar side. Some local Kachin NGOs who help distribute food to the refugees also have to rely on the Chinese authorities to transport food to refugees who have fled fighting between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic groups to the Chinese side of the border.
China has more influence with humanitarian issues because the Myanmar Army had blocked humanitarian deliveries across the front lines. The U.N. has not been able to make an official delivery to the north since May 2016.
China officials have met with Kachin community leaders on several occasions to ask for ideas on how to establish peace and to support the Myitsone Dam project. The Chinese authorities met elders of the Kachin Baptist Convention on September and asked for proposals on how to restore border stability. Rev. Dr Hkalam Samson said that China did not want to see fighting on the border between the KIA and Myanmar Army.
“They do not want to hear gunfire. This was their way of saying they want peace on the border. But, we need freedom of movement at the border for our side,” he said.
Since fighting broke out between the Myanmar Army and the KIA along the border in 2011, China has not severely restricted the movement of Kachin IDPs, he said.
However, China was now placing more controls on Kachin refugees than previously, he said.