Re-Blogged From Stratfor
Myanmar’s peace process is lurching forward, though not in the way the government may have hoped. Of the more than 20 ethnic groups fighting in the country, only two of significant size have signed a national cease-fire accord. And signing the accord could be a requirement for participating in an upcoming government conference that is the next step in the thus-far fruitless attempt to end decades of conflict in the country.
On April 25, the government announced that the long-delayed second round of its “21st Century Panglong Conference” will start May 24. However, only signatories of the 2015 Nationwide Cease-Fire Agreement (NCA) are expected to be allowed to attend. Of the eight groups that have signed it, six are either minor insurgencies or essentially civil-society groups with little to no firepower. Most of the rebel heavyweights have repeatedly rejected the idea of being forced to sign the NCA as a prerequisite for attending the conference, which would be largely meaningless without them.
The center of gravity of the peace process has moved firmly to the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar, where key insurgent groups hold resource-rich territory, posing new complications for both Naypyidaw and Beijing.
Factors Shaping the Peace Process
The first Panglong conference, held last August and September, was largely a ceremonial affair intended to lay the groundwork for more substantive talks to come and to outline the government’s vision for federalism. A federalist system is a longstanding demand of ethnic minority groups with roots in the unfulfilled promises of the Panglong summit in 1947, which established a power-sharing agreement between ethnic minority leaders and the central government that eventually failed.
But last year’s relatively modest peace effort largely fell flat: The conference lacked participation from the NCA holdouts (only representatives of the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) attended, and they walked out on the second day). And since then, fighting has spiked in the north, particularly in parts of Kachin and Shan states along the Chinese border.
Whether or not any substantial progress can be made at the next Panglong conference, the outlook for Myanmar’s peace process rests on three factors: The amount of cooperation between Myanmar’s civilian-led government and the military; the strength of a burgeoning rebel alliance in the country’s north; and the influence that China can wield among rebel groups along its border.
A Question of Military-Civilian Cohesion
One key to the peace process in Myanmar is the question of the military and whether the elected civilian government can unify around a strategy to develop conditions conducive to peace. After a carefully managed transition from direct military rule in 2010, elections in 2015 elevated the longtime opposition National League for Democracy, into the country’s leadership, where it replaced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. However, the military retains considerable influence on the direction of the country’s policies.
Since the last Panglong conference, the military has intensified operations in northern Kachin and Shan states. The civilian government under the de facto leadership of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has had little choice but to adopt the military’s divide-and-conquer strategy toward holdout rebel groups. This is, in part, because the military can essentially ignore any peace agreements the government strikes without the support of military leaders but also because the most well-resourced groups along the Chinese border have little incentive to cede much power to Naypyidaw.
No government, especially one trying to govern a geographically fractured and impoverished country like Myanmar, can tolerate unchecked insurgencies on its borders. Moreover, the government needs military support for its long-term vision for a shift to a federalist system. Implementing such a change would require a substantial revision of the country’s military-drafted constitution, and because the military appoints one-quarter of the parliament, it could block any changes to the document.
Shifts in the Rebel Landscape
Increasing unity among the strongest holdout ethnic armed groups under the banner of what’s called the Northern Alliance — a loose coalition founded formally in November by the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army with tacit involvement from Myanmar’s strongest rebel group, the 30,000-strong USWA. The alliance has launched multiple waves of coordinated attacks along the Chinese border in Shan state.
At a summit sponsored by the UWSA in mid-April, the Northern Alliance and two other groups launched a new negotiating committee, announcing that insurgent groups under its banner would no longer engage in unilateral talks with the government. In effect, this has made the Northern Alliance and, even more so, the UWSA, indispensable to any meaningful negotiations. And a more streamlined, cohesive rebel landscape may ultimately benefit the peace process.
But for now, it undermines the military’s strategy of division and weakens the United Nationalities Federal Council — a negotiating body consisting of seven holdout groups that the government sees as most likely to sign the NCA. The unified insurgency poses tactical problems as well. The military is ill-equipped to conduct sustained ground offensives in large swathes of the jungle-choked borderlands, which lack much in the way of transportation infrastructure. Government troops would also struggle to respond to coordinated flashpoints on multiple fronts. And the military’s main battlefield advantages — airpower and artillery — are limited somewhat in that region by the risk that stray ordnance could fall into Chinese territory. If the Northern Alliance can remain unified and maintain USWA support, the military would be highly unlikely to successfully force the border groups to the negotiating table.
The China Factor
China wields substantial influence with several of the holdout groups, particularly those on the Chinese-Myanmar border. The strength of the rebel groups has stemmed, in part, on their ability to procure weapons and funding and export markets across the Chinese border to sell the resources they control, and Beijing itself is believed to have periodically supplied direct material support to the UWSA (some of which the Wa has reportedly passed on to Northern Alliance partners). At a Wa-hosted summit with Northern Alliance members in February, in fact, the UWSA called for the NCA to be scrapped altogether and replaced with a Chinese-led peace process.
But according to an unconfirmed April 25 report in The Irrawaddy magazine, China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang recently told Wa leaders that China would no longer commit to backing the UWSA, encouraging the group to sign onto the NCA. The withdrawal of support would mark a substantial policy shift for Beijing, which has been keen to retain the leverage over Naypyidaw its influence with the border groups gives it. However, China has become frustrated with the conflict’s tendency to spill over the border, as well as its inability to put an end to the Northern Alliance’s November offensive. In addition, China does not want to push its support for the rebels to far, jeopardizing the progress it has made on its broader strategic and economic goals in Myanmar — including weakening Western influence in the country; facilitating cross-border trade and energy links; and building out projects furthering its One Belt, One Road initiative, such as the establishment of a deep water seaport and a special economic zone in Rakhine state.
Beijing has been gradually wading deeper into the peace process. Over the past six months, for example, China has hosted informal talks with Northern Alliance groups, has shut down a funding channel for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and has offered financial incentives for the Kachin Independence Army to sign the NCA. In December, China brought officials from the Myanmar Defense Ministry to Beijing for talks on border security. And in February, Sun met with the two most important NCA signatories — the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State, both of which control territories closer to Thailand — signaling both growing concern among the signatories about Naypyidaw’s approach to the peace process as well as Beijing’s interest in expanding its influence with other key actors in the conflict.
China likes to portray itself as an honest broker in the conflict, but its vested interests in Myanmar make neutrality difficult. A full withdrawal of Chinese backing from the UWSA, for example, would trigger a splintering of the rebel landscape in Shan state in ways that may further undermine Beijing’s ability to contain fighting along its border, while also reducing its cherished leverage over Naypyidaw.
Whatever China’s role, the geopolitics of Myanmar remain exceedingly ill-suited for peace. Many of Myanmar’s insurgencies have been fighting the government since shortly after Burma gained independence in 1948. Negotiations will take years and, even if completed, would be followed by continued difficulties with organized crime and militancy. The current state of the conflict has only further dispelled the notion that either Naypyidaw or Beijing can dictate the terms of peace.