April 25, 2014

War trumps peace in Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 
Mar 19,  '13

CHIANG MAI - Things are seldom as they seem in Myanmar, a country still little understood by the outside world. On a visit to Europe in early March, Myanmar President Thein Sein - an ex-general turned civilian politician - claimed that ''There's no more fighting in the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict'' between government forces and various ethnic resistance armies. 

Back at home, the Myanmar army continues its fierce offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country's far northern region. As KIA representatives and government officials met for yet another round of peace talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili on March 11, more than a hundred trucks carrying reinforcements and heavy equipment were seen entering Kachin State from garrisons in central Myanmar. In Shan State, almost daily skirmishes are reported with the Shan State Army, which has a shaky ceasefire agreement with the authorities. In Karen State, more government troops are taking up new positions in the hills bordering Thailand. 

The Myanmar government's doublespeak has not dissuaded Western nongovernmental organizations and think tanks from launching various peacemaking initiatives at a time an entirely different foreign power has taken charge of the process: China. On March 13, outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said he wanted to see an end to Myanmar's decades-long ethnic conflicts, which continue to have a severe impact on cross-border trade between the two countries. China ''will continue to develop its friendly cooperative relations with Myanmar based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, including non-interference in each other's internal affairs,'' Wen assured the public. 

In fact, China has a long history of involvement in Myanmar's internal affairs, dating back to its massive military support for the now defunct insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB) from 1968-78. But will China be any more successful in promoting trade and its brand of peace than it was when Beijing's policy was to export revolution to the rest of Asia? Today, China has a direct interest in stability in Myanmar and in particular Kachin State, where China has massive investments in the local jade trade, mineral exploration, hydroelectric power, retail and agro-industry. 

The Chinese way of dealing with the problem differs considerably from the softly-softly ''peace-and-reconciliation-through-dialogue'' approach of Western interlocutors. In Kachin State, China is waving a carrot to the government in Naypyidaw by pressuring the KIA and allowing Myanmar troops to detour and resupply through Chinese territory. At the same time, China is also waving sticks. According to a December report in Jane's Intelligence Review, China has allowed the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar's most powerful ethnic militia, to acquire large quantities of ''military hardware, including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and, for the first time in the UWSA's 23-year history, the provision of Chinese-made armored vehicles.'' 

Chinese-made armored personnel vehicles with heavy machine guns have been spotted in the UWSA's Pangshang headquarters and the Wa-held town of Mong Pawk in Shan State across from China's Yunnan province frontier. According to Jane's and eyewitness accounts, the vehicles appear to be Chinese-manufactured PTL02, the export version of the WMA301 Assaulter 105mm tank destroyer, and an unidentified wheeled combat reconnaissance vehicle equipped with a heavy machine gun. The UWSA has also acquired brand-new Chinese-made 12.7mm QJZ-89, or Type 89, heavy machine guns as well as other modern weapons. 

The UWSA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government since 1989 and it would be surprising if China aims to spark another ethnic in or near the 20,000 square kilometers of territory that the Wa control adjacent to the Chinese border. But by letting the UWSA acquire its heavy weaponry, China has sent a strong message to Naypyidaw at time the Myanmar military has ramped up military operations against the Kachin near the Chinese border. 

China, one of Myanmar's few international allies under the previous ruling junta, is now known to be unhappy with Thein Sein's moves to improve relations with the West, especially the United States. Beijing is still smarting from the Myanmar government's decision in September 2011 to suspend the construction of a US$3.6 billion China-backed dam in Kachin State. The announcement was made while Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin was in Washington for meetings with State Department officials. If allowed to go ahead, the dam would flood 600 square kilometers of forestland, displace thousands of villagers and send 90% of the power generated to China. 

Two months later, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to Myanmar, the first in decades by such a high-ranking US official. Other Western countries have responded enthusiastically to Myanmar's drift away from China towards more diversified diplomacy. Economic and financial sanctions have been eased, aid and investment have been pledged and previous criticism of human rights abuses perpetuated by the Myanmar army in ethnic minority areas has disappeared from Western governments' agendas. 

China's involvement in the peace process began in earnest on January 19 when Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying visited Myanmar to meet with Thein Sein and armed forces commander-in-chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Fu, who is known for her no-nonsense approach to foreign policy issues, reportedly made it clear that Beijing wanted a stop to the fighting in Kachin State. From 1994 to 2011, the KIA had a ceasefire agreement with the government but it broke down over the core issue of whether Myanmar will function in future as a federal union or a centralized state with no real autonomy for ethnic areas. 

When Chinese-sponsored peace talks were held in the border town of Ruili on February 3, Beijing sent Luo Zhaohui, a former ambassador to Pakistan and now director general of Chinese Foreign Ministry's Department of Asian Affairs, to ''observe'' the process. The second round of talks at Ruili from March 11-12 was attended by Wang Yingfan, another high-ranking foreign ministry official. According to sources in Ruili, Wang has been assigned to monitor all future talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachins. 

The same sources say that China has put heavy pressure on the KIA to accept what would have amounted to an unconditional ceasefire with the Myanmar government. Before the previous round of China-sponsored peace talks in Ruili in early February, Chinese officials went to the Kachin headquarters in Laiza near the border to pick up Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, the KIA's chief of staff, to ensure his attendance, according to sources familiar with the situation. He had refused to participate in talks held in October last year because the Myanmar army were at the time shelling Kachin refugee settlements in the area, the sources said. The recent round of talks ended with the two sides agreeing only to meet again. 

Peace industrial complex
China's overt intervention in Myanmar's civil war raises doubts about the viability of Western-led mediation efforts - as does the proliferation of Western organizations that have turned peace initiatives in Myanmar into a virtual industry. The Norwegian-initiated Myanmar Peace Support Initiative has been followed by similar efforts by the Switzerland-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Japan's Nippon Foundation and various other European Union-sponsored initiatives now being run through the Myanmar Peace Center, an entity created by Thein Sein's office. 

The Institute for Security and Development Policy, a Swedish think tank, has also has received EU funding for ''national reconciliation and peace-building with ethnic group'', while Pacta, a Finnish NGO, and the Phnom Penh-based Center for Peace and Conflict Studies are likewise known to be looking for peace-making opportunities in Myanmar. At least six individuals are also involved with the Myanmar Peace Center in pursuit of their own private agendas. There are millions of dollars and Euros at stake in these so far futile peace efforts. 

The outcome has been overlapping initiatives, rivalry among various organizations and, more often than not, a lack of understanding by inexperienced ''peacemakers'' of the root causes of the conflicts. On April 22, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group will honor Thein Sein at its annual ''In Pursuit of Peace Award Dinner'' in New York, an award some critics view as a thinly veiled attempt by the group to win influence with Naypyidaw and steal a march from their conflict resolution-oriented competitors. 

That is not to say that the Chinese approach to peace has been more sophisticated. In talk shows on Radio Beijing, Chinese academics have expressed the view that the root of the problem is that the Kachins and other ethnic minorities are not getting their fair share of local revenues, an analysis that reduces decades of armed struggle for recognition of ethnic identity into a simplistic quest for economic benefits. The Kachins and other ethnic groups have pointed out that Myanmar government negotiators assigned to peace talks have no authority to discuss political issues such as federalism, making the talks little more than talks about talks with no prospect of a binding political solution to the conflict. 

There also appears to be a lack of cohesion in China's approach. In December last year, several closed-door meetings were held in Beijing where Yunnan-based academics argued that the Chinese government should close the border entirely and cooperate only with Myanmar authorities to crush the KIA's supply lines and improve Beijing's strained relationship with Naypyidaw. Foreign ministry officials reportedly warned that such a one-sided view of the problem could lead to a massive influx of Kachin refugees into Yunnan and motivate attacks on Chinese businesses and individuals situated in Kachin State. 

Moreover, China must take into account that more than 130,000 ethnic Kachins now reside in Yunnan. When the KIA came under attack by helicopter gunships, fighter jets and heavy artillery in January, several thousand Yunnan-based Kachins traveled by truck and bus near the border to show solidarity with their ethnic brethren on the other side. Many other Chinese Kachins were stopped at security checkpoints before they could reach the border area. Given the sensitivity of ethnic issues in China with separatist movements active in Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is likely keen to avoid antagonizing yet another minority people, even a relatively small one like the Kachin. 

Whether Western or Chinese, current peace efforts fail to take into account Myanmar's long history of failed peace talks. The KIA, along with 12 other ethnic and political rebel armies, took part in Myanmar's first broad-based peace parley in 1963. Those talks broke down quickly on all fronts when Myanmar's new military government which had seized power in March 1962 offered the rebels only amnesty and rehabilitation with no political concessions. 

In 1972, the KIA approached the government in pursuit of a ceasefire that would have enabled both sides to better resist the CPB, which at the time was spreading its influence all along the Sino-Myanmar border. The government contemplated the offer for a couple of months then turned it down. Four years later, the KIA made peace instead with the CPB and began to receive Chinese-made weapons from the communists to sustain their fight against government forces. 

In 1980, as Beijing was in the process of abandoning its previous policy of supporting communist insurgent movements across Southeast Asia, China sponsored semi-secret talks between the Myanmar government and the CPB as well as the KIA. Kachin leader Brang Seng even traveled to Yangon to meet Myanmar's then military dictator Gen Ne Win but no political agreement was reached. While the Kachins asked for autonomy they were requested to recognize the authority of Ne Win's then ruling party, the Burma Socialist Program Party. 

At the same time, a general amnesty was announced in which the entire opposition was invited back to the country, though on the government's terms. Most leading ethnic Burman exiles, opposition politicians and activists accepted the offer; few if any Kachins or other ethnic group members did. 

In 1994, the KIA signed for the first time a proper ceasefire agreement with the government. Several rounds of talks were held between the Kachins and Myanmar's military rulers and again the military refused to compromise. Peace could only be achieved by accepting the military's central authority and abandoning all demands for federalism and autonomy. Now, the failed peace drives of 1963, 1972, 1980 and 1994 are being repeated as Thein Sein's government maintains the same inflexible position of past military governments. 

Both the West and China have shown ineptitude in dealing with Myanmar's complex ethnic issues. The internal wars that have plagued the country since independence from Britain in 1948 are now no closer to a lasting solution than they were in 2011, when Thein Sein first announced his intention to achieve national reconciliation through ceasefire initiatives. Despite all the government's rhetoric and internationally-backed peace efforts, the situation in Myanmar's war-torn frontier areas is depressingly the same and lasting peace as elusive as ever. 

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948(published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services. 

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