Myanmar’s peace process is growing ever more complex.
Last month, a group of seven ethnic armed opposition groups (EAOs) established the Union Political Negotiation Dialogue Committee (UPNDC) as an alternative to the civilian government’s 21st Century Panglong Conference. The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), backed unofficially by China, sponsored the meeting of EAOs in their de facto capital, Pangkham. The group criticized the current government peace plan as obsolete, and pledged to negotiate directly with the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw). While the Tatmadaw has publicly denounced any alternatives to the current peace process, this new entry further diminishes the civilian-driven dialogue in Naypyidaw and signals a Chinese ambition to take a more active role in Myanmar’s domestic issues.
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The internationally supported 21st Century Panglong Conference is supposed to be a semi-annual meeting between the key stakeholders of the peace process. It provides a much-needed regular setting for the military, the civilian government, and EAOs to communicate directly to each other.
Its first meeting, in August 2016, built upon the previous success of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a pact signed between then-President Thein Sein and representatives from eight different EAOs. The new Panglong Conference promised inclusivity and an openness toward multilateral discussions that previous, military-led negotiations had lacked. Some of the non-signatories to the NCA were invited and encouraged to observe and contribute. The promise of the civilian government under the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal magnetism brought many EAOs back to the bargaining table.
However, in the nine months since that meeting, the government has failed to make significant headway with the non-signatory groups. Several smaller EAOs have postured a readiness to join the peace process, but the most powerful opposition armies, including the UWSA and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have distanced themselves from any Naypyidaw-sponsored dialogue
It has always been difficult for a single stakeholder to drive the peace process forward on their own terms. The sheer volume of participants prevents unilateral decision-making. Twenty EAOs, the Tatmadaw, the new civilian government, and international players have all at one time or another demanded a seat at the table. In the past, the junta’s monopoly on violence and their bully pulpit allowed them to dictate terms and deal with armed insurgencies one by one. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has no such power. The new Panglong Conference allows them to convene the peace negotiations, but facts on the ground are moving against the civilian government.
In the past nine months, the Tatmadaw has struggled to contain a new coalition of EAOs in the north, called the Northern Alliance – Burma. The alliance is unique in several ways. It comprises four EAOs that have refused to sign the NCA: the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA). Their consolidation of power marks the first time that EAOs have successfully banded their militaries together to overwhelm the Tatmadaw’s traditional divide-and-conquer strategies. The alliance is supported and armed by the UWSA, by far the most powerful EAO in the country. The alliance members have also been vocal in their demands for a new peace process, with China and the UWSA as active players.
The fighting has inflicted heavy losses on both sides, and triggered a new wave of displaced civilians. As the violence has increased throughout the spring, it has involved China more and more. The Tatmadaw’s aerial bombardment of EAO positions near the border has raised the ire of the People’s Liberation Army. In March, 20,000 refugees fled across the border, prompting Beijing to criticize the current peace process.
This surge in violence has also given EAOs opposed to the current peace deal an easy way to criticize the NLD. The civilian government is constitutionally unable to control the military, but its tacit approval of the Tatmadaw’s tactics has provided rhetorical ammo to opposition groups (the fact that the Northern Alliance groups have initiated many of the most harmful civilian assaults notwithstanding). The NLD is between a rock and a hard place: unable to placate the EAOs that have yet to sign on to the NCA, and forced to support a failing counter-insurgency in order to protect the country’s integrity.
Battlefield success has strengthened the bargaining position of the northern groups, prompting the central government to meet some of the demands long held by the United Nations Federation Council (UNFC), a loose political alliance of EAOs that has regularly convened since 2011. In the past few months, this organization has begun to fracture. Following the civilian government’s verbal concessions, some non-signatory holdouts to the NCA have been signaling a willingness to join. A majority of UNFC members now support the government-sponsored peace process. However, the militarily powerful Kachin and Wa groups, along with several other EAOs, have begun to withdraw from the UNFC. This splintering led to last month’s announcement of the new, Wa-sponsored, dialogue framework.
This newly proposed UPNDC dialogue framework also signals a Chinese intent to play a more active role in Myanmar’s domestic political scene. Chinese stakes in the peace process are high. The border skirmishes and refugee streams are important short-term issues, but Beijing also has much longer strategic goals that require a stable Myanmar. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative has identified the country as an integral market for trade, infrastructure investment, and energy development. Myanmar still represents the most direct route from southwestern China to the Indian Ocean. The recent Chinese bid for an 85 percent stake and preferential access at the Kyauk Pyu port illustrates the importance China places on this access. Continued uncertainty and stalling in the peace process jeopardize these long-term plans.
China publicly supports the civilian government’s peace process. However, with the inauguration of a new framework, it is clear that the Chinese are hedging their bets. China’s connection and influence with the USWA would provide a malleable vehicle for influencing this new process. Peace is more valuable to the Chinese than the manner through which it is reached, even if that means circumventing the NLD’s Western-backed process.
The new Panglong Conference is set to reconvene on May 24. The NLD and its supporters will highlight its successes so far, but battlefield realities in the north signify a shifting center of gravity. For now, comprehensive peace remains elusive in Myanmar.
Daniel Combs is a Master’s student at Columbia University, where he focuses on security challenges in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.