The delicate relationship between Myanmar and China has once again been exposed following Myanmar’s air bombing on March 13, targeting ethnic rebels. Instead, the bombing killed five Chinese farmers in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, bordering northern Myanmar. Following the incident, Beijing issued stern warnings against Myanmar.
The Chinese government has accused the Myanmar military for the bombing. But the Myanmar government has denied any role and instead alleged that it could be the work of ethnic rebels. Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw have launched a joint investigation to look into the incident.
The incident also revealed the limitations of the ongoing Myanmar’s peace process and the complexities in the border lands that underscore the regional dimension of the conflicts in Myanmar. The geopolitical significance of the incident also cannot be overlooked. Especially at time when there is intense power-play among major powers in Myanmar.
The Kokang factor has long been a source of tension in China-Myanmar relations. The Kokang, an ethnic Chinese community, is based in northern Shan State and maintains a rebel army known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) under the leadership of Peng Jiasheng. The MNDAA was part of the China-backed force called the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) that fought against the Myanmar government. Jiasheng has long been involved in drug trade and both he and his son are in the US sanction list.
After the disintegration of the CPB in 1989, the Kokang entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government. This lasted till 2009 when fighting erupted following the MNDAA ‘s refusal to integrate into a paramilitary force under the Burmese army. During this conflict, thousands of Kokang people fled to China as refugees. Beijing responded with strong statements against Myanmar, warning it of spillover effects. It urged the Myanmar government to handle its ethnic issue better.
Since February 9 this year, fighting between the MNDAA rebels and the Burmese army has again resumed and hundreds of thousands refugees were again pushed to the Yunnan province in China.
China’s immediate concerns are primarily the danger of cross-border effects of conflicts in Myanmar. But China also has long-term interests to safeguard its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. China has built pipelines and other major infrastructures in Myanmar that it wants to protect for both commercial interests and as strategic access to the Indian Ocean. So, as Beijing responds to the border instability, it is also trying hard to balance these interests.
It needs to be pointed out that the current conflicts in Myanmar manifest the weaknesses of the government-led peace process. While the Myanmar government hopes to end the ethnic conflicts, the Myanmar army continues to fight ethnic rebels in several areas in the country. Moreover, small ethnic groups are not allowed to be part of the negotiation process. The Kokang group is one such ethnic group among other several other smaller ethnic groups who are not invited to peace talks.
Since political transition in Myanmar began in 2011 under the Thein Sein government, the country has been trying to minimise its reliance on China by diversifying its engagements and bringing the Western countries, particularly the US, to counterweigh its northern neighbour.
Over the past four years or so, the relationship between China and Myanmar has seen dramatic developments, including the suspension of Chinese funded mega-projects such as the Myitsone Dam and the copper mine project. Myanmar’s democratic reforms and multiplying external partners have directly impacted China’s interests in Myanmar.
As China’s stronghold on Myanmar eases, the US has been trying to strengthen its foothold in this country, strategically located between India, China, and ASEAN. Seen as Asia’s ‘last frontier’, Myanmar has been attracting huge investments from Japan, Korea, US, India, EU and Southeast Asian countries. As these countries step up their economic engagements with Myanmar, China’s dominant position has been increasingly challenged.
The bombing has brought up another dimension also. It is the role of regional players – a subject that has never been seriously discussed or being taken up in the current discourse on Myanmar’s ethnic peace process. Since 2011, when the Thein Sein government initiated the peace process, the role of external players has largely focused on countries outside the region — including the EU, the UK, Norway and the US. Surely, the role of these countries is important and their support needs to be continued as Myanmar struggles to take the peace process forward.
The recent incident has demonstrated that the role of the regional players needs to be brought to the fore, within the larger framework of international support in the Myanmar’s peace process. In fact, some observers have suggested regional coordination among India, China and Thailand to help Myanmar in its search for peace with its ethnic rebels. The three neighbours share long land boundaries where many ethnic groups are found on both sides of the border.
From a practical point of view, however, a regional mechanism may not come by in the near future, owing to the strategic suspicions among the regional countries and, more importantly, Myanmar itself which may not want to give a larger role to the immediate neighbours with whom it has its reservations.
At best, the role of regional players can be pursued in their individual capacities in the current scenario. China has been engaged in Myanmar’s peace process by facilitating negotiations between the Myanmar government and some of the ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar such as the Wa and the Kokang.
Thailand has been allowing representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic groups to meet in its country to chalk out their negotiations with the Nay Pyi Taw. In recent months, India has been involved in Myanmar’s peace process by agreeing to facilitate Myanmar’s rebel leaders to travel to India to understand peace agreement that India had achieved with some of its ethnic rebels.
It is important that all the immediate neighbours play a positive role to ensure that Myanmar’s peace process reach its logical conclusion. India, China and Thailand are aware of peace dividends that could result out of the Myanmar’s peace process. In the past, ethnic rebels have been used as ‘buffer zone’, in dealing with the Myanmar government. However, such strategies for short-term gains would prove disastrous.
The question is not if there is a regional mechanism where the regional players can work together. If the regional countries are serious about stabilising the region for the interests of the entire region, each country needs to take the responsibility and deliver what it ought to do individually. An earnest pursue at the individual level may open up avenues to work collectively in future.
(The writer is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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