The Irrawaddy

News Analysis: China Plays Its Hand in Burma’s Peace Process

China’s Special Envoy Sun Guoxiang addresses a summit of ethnic armed groups in Kachin State in July 2016. / Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy

Ahead of the second 21st Century Panglong peace conference, China’s influence has been quite visible. Staying in Naypyidaw, Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang engaged in quiet shuttle diplomacy between Burma’s state counselor, army chief, and powerful armed groups along the China border.

Almost all of the state guest houses (five-star hotels in Burma’s administrative capital Naypyidaw) and security has been beefed up to protect special guests. But behind the scenes, Mr. Sun Guoxiang’s busy convoy has pressed all sides to engage in dialogue.

It is believed that Sun Guoxiang held separate meetings with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and government chief peace negotiator Dr. Tin Myo Win last week, ahead of the conference’s May 24 start. He previously held several meetings with ethnic groups in various locations including in Kunming, Yunnan Province.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Military Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing also met on Tuesday morning in Naypyidaw to discuss peace issues – but this meeting was not publicized.

China repeatedly asked all Northern Alliance armed groups to attend the peace conference and also asked the Burma Army to invite the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

These three armed groups were not invited in the past but it seems as though a breakthrough came after several meetings between China and Burma.

China reportedly told ethnic leaders to wait in Kunming until the commander-in-chief gave the go ahead. The Burma Army needed to give the green light, and it is unclear how Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was convinced to do so.

The government initially invited nine ethnic armed organizations as “special guests,” but later invited the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army under the same status on short notice.

All seven of the ethnic armed organizations from northeast Burma have decided to join. They are the United Wa State Army; National Democratic Alliance Army; Shan State Progress Party; Kachin Independence Army; Ta’ang National Liberation Army; Arakan Army; and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. As of Tuesday morning, they were waiting in Kunming while Mr. Sun Guoxiang mediated. China had arranged a flight to fly the groups to Naypyidaw as soon as it received confirmation from Burma.

When the Wa and several ethnic armed groups arrived in Naypyidaw on Tuesday afternoon, they were welcomed by Burmese who were involved in peace talks as well as a senior Chinese diplomat from the Chinese embassy in Rangoon.

China Plays Big Brother in Burma’s Peace Process

On Feb. 13, the Chinese special envoy met with several armed groups and ethnic leaders in Kunming.

In the meeting, Sun Guoxiang was quoted as saying: “China hopes that peace prevails in Burma, and would not like to say who is right and who is wrong. China will not sit as a judge, but will only push all stakeholders in the peace process. China would like to urge the stakeholders to solve the problems at the negotiation table and will provide advice as a friend in case problems arise.”

“China has a unique foreign policy toward Burma and respects the sovereignty of Burma. China will not seek any interests from Burma, but is only doing its duty as a friendly neighbor,” Sun Guoxiang continued.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had asked China to help secure peace in Burma. During her recent visit to China to attend the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that China would continue to help the country achieve peace, and called for both sides to maintain stability on their shared border.

“China is willing to continue to provide necessary assistance for [Burma’s] internal peace process,” he said.

China is the largest investor in Burma and has political and strategic interests in Burma. It wants to see stability in Burma as it continues to push its ambitious OBOR initiative that will expand infrastructure between Asia, Africa and Europe.

China is no judge but continues to play the role of big brother in Burma’s internal conflict, keeping western influences and peacemakers at bay.