China’s key role in helping Aung San Suu Kyi reconcile Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic conflicts
Beijing’s influence over most powerful minorities along Yunnan border could help reverse its declining image in impoverished southeast Asian nation
Beijing is heavily involved in Myanmar’s peace process, which has culminated in historic talks this week between the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and various armed ethnic groups.
Underlining China’s major role, Beijing’s special envoy for Asian affairs, Sun Guoxiang was invited to attend the talks aimed at settling nearly seven decades of armed conflicts in the impoverished, strife-ridden Southeastern Asian nation.
Suu Kyi has pulled out all the stops to secure the participation of all the major armed ethnic groups in the talks, the first time since the 1947 Panglong Conference, named after a small town in Myanmar’s southern Shan State.
Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San was a main architect of the original Panglong Agreement, which paved the way for a united modern-day Myanmar. But the deal fell apart and peace proved to be short-lived as the nation plunged into decades-long brutal armed conflicts and ethnic strife soon after its independence from British rule in 1948.
Representatives from 17 out of the 20 major ethnic groups, including the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Wa – who together make up 40 per cent of the country’s population – are attending the conference which started on Wednesday.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to accomplish a great task that will stand as a landmark throughout our history,” Suu Kyi, said the opening of the talks. She said her National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s aim has always been to hold political negotiations “based on the Panglong spirit and the principle of finding solutions through the guarantee of equal rights, mutual respect and mutual confidence between all ethnic nationalities”.
Diplomatic observers believe the talks, which bring nearly all of the rebel groups to the negotiating table, marks a new chapter in the nation’s intermittent peace process after Myanmar’s military regime and armed ethnic groups most recently fought along its northern border with China’s Yunnan province.
It is also seen as a major test of the leadership of Suu Kyi, who declared peace and ethnic reconciliation her “first priority” since the NDL’s landslide election victory late last year.
Despite its long-standing foreign policy mantra of non-interference, Beijing still wields considerable influence in Myanmar’s domestic politics, especially on several rebel groups who have shunned many previous attempts to involve them in the peace process, including the landmark signing of a major ceasefire agreement last year.
Those rebels, the strongest armed groups in Myanmar, are believed to hold the key to Myanmar’s quest for peace and stability, observers say.
Just days ahead of the talks, Suu Kyi visited China on her first major foreign trip to cement Beijing’s support for the challenging peace process, specifically to exert pressure on warring ethnic groups along China’s southwest border with Myanmar, which were initially reluctant to attend the meeting.
She promised to find a resolution to the deadlocked Myitsone dam and other China-backed infrastructure projects suspended by her predecessor, Thein Sein at the height of Myanmar’s democratic transition five years ago, which plunged bilateral ties to an all-time low.
In return, top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, reiterated their support for her initiative to find a settlement to decades of ethnic rebellion and pledged to “play a constructive role in promoting Myanmar’s peace process”.
Two days after Suu Kyi’s China trip, Sun met leaders of the United Wa State Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, two of Myanmar’s best armed ethnic groups, at the frontier village of Mong La on August 24, according to Myanmar media reports.
Formed after the China-backed Communist Party of Burma dissolved in 1989, both groups refused to take part in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year. China is believed to have played a key role in persuading both groups to attend the peace talks, which are being chaired by Suu Kyi.
Analysts believe the talks are unlikely to make breakthroughs and should be viewed as the start of renewed efforts to push for peace.
Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian, said China has strategic interests in Myanmar’s peace process and plays a central part in ending decades of armed conflict.
“Beijing certainly wants peace on the border, but on its terms. It doesn’t want a Western-dominated peace process but one in which it can play the key outside role,” he said.
Phuong Nguyen, a Southeast Asian analyst at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, also said Suu Kyi needed China’s support to push ahead with her domestic agenda.
Suu Kyi was well-positioned to regain lost ground with China after her predecessor’s decision to distance itself from Beijing to allay domestic anti-China sentiment and make overtures to the West.
“Most of the ethnic armed groups who are well-resourced or actively fighting the government are located along the China-Myanmar border, and reportedly have links inside China. Her peace team has broached the subject with senior Chinese officials through quiet diplomacy” in the lead-up to the talks, she said.
Jonathan Chow, a Myanmar expert at the University of Macau, also noted bilateral relations had been strained over ethnic violence in the past.
China and Myanmar engaged in a spat last year when fighting broke out again between government troops and the formerly Beijing-backed Kokang rebels, forcing as many as 30,000 mostly ethnic
Chinese to fleeing across the border into Lincang prefecture in Yunnan.
Myanmar’s chief of military affairs security accused Chinese mercenaries if aiding the rebels, an allegation Beijing categorically denied.
“China remains Myanmar’s largest investor and trading partner and wields significant influence over ethnic armed groups along the border. [They] are going to have to work out the parameters of a less asymmetric relationship, but China will continue to be a critical player in Myanmar by virtue of its geography and close economic ties,” Chow said.