Guest Column

Powers Seek Influence in Burma’s Conflict

By Bertil Lintner 23 March 2013

More than one battle is underway in Burma, with policy contortions little understood by the outside world. There’s the government’s ongoing struggle with an abundance of ethnic resistance armies and then the larger struggle between the West and China for influence.

Foreign intervention in Burma’s peace process is becoming a war by proxy, dividing policymakers in every country involved.

The Burmese government seems intent on a military solution to its troubles with ethnic insurgency. As delegates gathered for March talks with insurgents in the border town of Ruili, hundreds of Burmese army trucks were sending more soldiers and heavy equipment into Kachin State.

Yet in Europe only a few days earlier, President Thein Sein, ex-general-turned-civilian politician, proclaimed, “There’s no more fighting in the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict” between government forces and an abundance of ethnic resistance armies. This despite almost daily attacks against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the far north, frequent skirmishes with the Shan State Army (SSA) in Shan State—a group that has an official ceasefire agreement with central authorities—and more government troops taking up new positions in Karen State in the hills bordering Thailand.

While Western NGOs and think tanks are scrambling to engage in Burma peacemaking, the mighty neighbor to the north is taking charge. On March 13, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao admitted that decades-long ethnic conflicts are having a severe impact on cross-border trade, yet China would continue to develop cooperative relations “based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, including non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”

The fact is that China has a long history of involvement in Burma’s internal affairs, dating back to its massive military support for the now-defunct insurgent Communist Party of Burma from 1968 to 1978. Today China has a direct interest in stability in Burma and Kachin State, in particular, where it has large investment in mineral exploration, hydroelectric-power generation, retail trade and agro-industry.

Chinese methods for promoting peace differ considerably from the “peace-and-reconciliation-through-dialogue” approach of Western interlocutors. In Kachin State, China is waving a carrot to the government in Naypyidaw by putting pressure on the KIA and allowing Burmese troops to detour through Chinese territory. China is waving a big stick as well. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review on Dec. 21, China has supplied Burma’s most powerful ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with large quantities of military hardware. Chinese-made armored personnel carriers with machine guns have been spotted in the UWSA’s Panghsang headquarters in Burma across the Yunnan frontier.

The UWSA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1989. China does not want another war. By letting the UWSA acquire heavy weaponry, China sends a strong message to Naypyidaw: Don’t mess with us.

It’s hardly a secret that China is unhappy with Burma’s moves to improve relations with the West, especially the United States. Beijing is still smarting from the Burmese government’s decision in September 2011 to suspend construction of a US $3.6 billion China-backed mega-dam in Kachin State, which would have flooded 600 square kilometers of forestland, displaced thousands of villagers and supplied 90 percent of its electricity to China. Two months later, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to Burma, the first in decades by such a high-ranking Washington official.

Burma’s drift away from its close relationship with China had begun, and the West responded with enthusiasm. Sanctions were eased, aid and investment pledged; criticism of human-rights abuses by the Burmese army in ethnic minority areas all but disappeared from agendas of Western governments.

China’s involvement in the peace process began in earnest when, on Jan. 19, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying visited Burma and met with Thein Sein as well as Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Fu, known for her plain-speaking style in diplomacy, reportedly made it clear that China wanted fighting in Kachin State to stop. From 1994 to 2011, the KIA had a ceasefire agreement with the government, but that broke down over disagreement about Burma’s governance—whether it should be a federal union or a centralized state with no real autonomy for the ethnic areas.

Chinese-sponsored peace talks were held in Ruili in Yunnan Province Feb. 3. Beijing sent a senior official, Luo Zhaohui, former ambassador to Pakistan and now director general of the Department of Asian Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, to observe the process. A second round of talks at Ruili on March 11 was attended by Wang Yingfan, another high-ranking minister of foreign affairs.

The Chinese intervention in Burma’s civil war casts doubts on the feasibility of foreign-mediation efforts—as does the proliferation of Western organizations which have turned peace in Burma into a virtual industry and, for some, a lucrative business. The Norwegian-initiated Myanmar Peace Support Initiative has been followed by similar efforts by the Switzerland-based Center for Humanitarian Dialog, the Nippon Foundation of Japan and EU-sponsored initiatives through the Myanmar Peace Center, an entity close to the Burmese government. The Institute for Security and Development Policy, a Swedish think tank, also has EU funding for “national reconciliation and peace-building” with ethnic groups, while Pacta, a Finnish NGO, looks for opportunities as well. The Phnom Penh-based Center for Peace and Conflict Studies is involved, too, as are at least six individuals with their own private agendas. Millions of dollars and euros are at stake in these efforts.

The outcome has been overlapping initiatives, rivalry among organizations—and more often than not a lack of understanding by inexperienced “peacemakers” of the conflicts’ root causes. This is not to say that the Chinese approach has been more sophisticated. On Radio Beijing, Chinese academics have suggested that the main problem is that the Kachins and other ethnic minorities are not getting their fair share of local revenues—or turning decades of struggle for recognition of ethnic identity into a quest for mere economic benefit. The Kachins and others are quick to point out that Burmese government negotiators at the peace talks have no mandate to discuss political issues such as federalism. Thus, the talks are little more than talks about talks with little prospect of success.

The Chinese approach may also lack cohesion. In December, several closed-door meetings were held in Beijing where Yunnan-based academics argued that the Chinese government should close the border and collaborate only with the Burmese authorities to crush the KIA, thus improving the strained relationship with Naypyidaw. Foreign Ministry officials reportedly warned that such a one-sided view could lead to an influx of Kachin refugees into Yunnan and possibly attacks on Chinese businesses and individuals.

Moreover, China must take into account that Yunnan Province has more than 130,000 ethnic Kachins. When the KIA was under fierce attack by helicopter gunships, fighter jets and heavy artillery in January, several thousand Chinese Kachins traveled by truck and bus to the border to show solidarity with brethren on the other side. More Chinese Kachins were stopped at checkpoints before the border. Given the sensitivity of China’s handling of ethnic issue as seen in regions such Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing cannot afford to antagonize yet another minority people, even if it is relatively small.

With both the West and China demonstrating ineptitude in refereeing Burma’s ethnic conflict, the internal wars that have plagued Burma since independence from Britain in 1948 appear nowhere near a solution.

This article was originally published by Yale Global Online.