Army’s Willingness to Sit Down with FPNCC Members Shows China’s Growing Clout

By Lawi Weng 18 December 2018

China has stepped up its role in the peace process in Myanmar, especially as it relates to conflicts along the China-Myanmar border in northern Shan State. Beijing understands that stability and peace on the border will benefit both countries.

In particular, China is playing an important role as peace broker between the Myanmar Army and members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). Sun Guoxiang, special envoy for Asian affairs at China’s Foreign Ministry, is Beijing’s go-between tasked with convincing the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) to sit down with the FPNCC in peace negotiations.

On several occasions Sun has traveled to Naypyitaw to meet with military leaders, then traveled to the border to relay their messages to FPNCC members. Previously, Sun had found it difficult to convince the Myanmar Army to enter peace negotiations with the FPNCC. Until recently, the Tatmadaw refused to accept the participation of the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in peace negotiations.

Given the difficulty of convincing Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Sun sometimes resorted to telling FPNCC members at meetings how nicely dressed the senior general’s wife was dressed, and describing her traditional attire. The FPNCC leaders wanted to hear a message regarding peace negotiations, but instead had to listen to talk of Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s wife.

And while some FPNCC leaders may have found the discussion of Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s wife meaningless, they themselves had nothing to say to Sun. At that time, the FPNCC leaders believed that the peace mission from China was a failure.

According to statements issued last week, however, the Myanmar Peace Commission has accepted the participation of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA in peace negotiations. The FPNCC members and China both feel that some progress has been made in peace negotiations, with this change of heart by the Myanmar Army.

If China is able to broker a peace agreement between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), it could bring the armed conflicts in northern Shan State and Arakan State to an end.

The Chinese Embassy in Yangon even issued a statement last week welcoming both the MPC’s statement and a joint statement from the AA, TNLA and MNDAA agreeing to work toward further peace negotiations.

China places an emphasis on peace negotiations and would continue to provide the necessary support for the process, the embassy statement said.

China put a lot of pressure on the Myanmar Army to accept the participation of the three groups, according to some FPNCC leaders. Myanmar and China have agreed to build a railway from Muse in northern Shan to Mandalay. According to the FNPCC members, China is using such projects as economic leverage over Myanmar’s military leadership.

The railway project between the two countries forms part of a proposed economic corridor that is itself part of Beijing’s huge regional infrastructure development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang said at the October signing of a memorandum of understanding to build the project.

During his speech, the ambassador made a point of saying that the project will support economic development, peace and stability in northern Shan State.

China the priority for Myanmar military

The Myanmar government and military’s view of China has not always been so rosy. The previous government of former President U Thein Sein courted favor from Western countries to support the peace process and economic development. At that time, China was a lesser priority for Naypyitaw.

But as Western countries have put increasing pressure and sanctions on the Myanmar Army and government over the crisis in Rakhine State and rights abuses against the Rohingya, Naypyitaw has increasingly turned to China. Given the large portion of Myanmar’s economy that is controlled by the Tatmadaw, and China’s increasing role in development projects, Beijing will find many ways to pressure the Myanmar Army to build peace.