China Can Use Its Influence to End Fighting in Myanmar’s Shan State

By Lawi Weng 27 August 2019

Early this year, China sent researchers to Myanmar to meet journalists and local businessmen and discuss ways that Chinese investment could foster peace in the country.

They shouldn’t have be surprised when, among other suggestions, some people called for China to pressure the Myanmar Army to stop fighting in northern Shan State. With its philosophy of seeking peace through investment and development, China is best positioned to pressure the Myanmar Army to stop fighting.

When the Myanmar Army invited three ethnic armed groups to join peace talks early this year, I was tremendously encouraged, believing the move might have been the result of pressure from China. We welcomed the Myanmar military’s actions, believing that holding peace talks with the three armed groups might end the fighting.

China is in the process of building a railway from Ruili to Mandalay as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), so it wants to see peace in northern Shan State to ensure that its investment is protected. Beijing’s strategy is, “Invest first, and peace will follow.”

The main threat to China’s investment comes from the ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State. The groups delayed the launch of their current counteroffensive for a long time, as they were concerned about how China would react.

Unlike in previous rounds of fighting, most of the recent clashes in northern Shan State have taken place in the interior, not near the Chinese border. I believe the ethnic armed groups might be trying to avoid creating problems with China.

For example, there has been no fighting yet in the Kokang region, which was the area that suffered most whenever the Northern Alliance launched military offensives in the past. The current fighting has centered mostly around Lashio, Hseni and Kutkai townships, far from the border.

In the past, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) has attacked Muse, sending thousands of IDPs fleeing to the Chinese border. There is no fighting in Muse today. Again, this might be because the TNLA seeks to avoid problems with China.

After China met with senior officials from three ethnic armed groups in Yunnan province last week, the three armed groups—the TNLA, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)—eased their attacks on a highway, which had blocked the major route for border trade. They launched fewer attacks, with the number of clashes dropping to about three a day. In the first few days of the offensive the three armed groups were attacking in about 10 places a day, with Kutkai Township the worst affected.

The fighting in northern Shan State could end soon if the Myanmar Army stops chasing ethnic armed groups into the jungle, or if it stops fighting in Rakhine. However, more Myanmar Army troops have been deployed in northern Shan State, and the ethnic rebels are defending themselves.

By scaling back their attacks, the ethnic armed groups showed that they are responsive to the views of China, which has described their offensive as unacceptable. However, some fighting has continued in nearby Kutkai, as the ethnic forces there are trying to resist the Myanmar Army’s efforts to push them into the jungle.

Many ethnic people believe that the fighting in the country was not started by the ethnic armed groups—it originated when the Myanmar Army attacked armed groups in the ethnic regions. A look at the history of the country tells us why Myanmar has not been able to end its armed conflict: Critics say the Myanmar Army provoked conflict with the ethnic armed groups.

China also needs to pressure the Myanmar Army to stop fighting in the ethnic areas; it is not enough to pressure just the joint ethnic armed force.

Additionally, Beijing needs to respect the role of the ethnic armed groups when it makes its investment plans for northern Shan State—China should not seek approval only from the government and Myanmar Army.

China did not negotiate with the TNLA, Kachin Independence Army, MNDAA or Shan State Progress Party on its plans to build a railway from Ruili to Mandalay. China must respect and give some hope to ethnic rebels, and show that its investment is intended to benefit not only the Burmese, but all ethnic groups.

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