Chinese shadow over Myanmar’s wars
Myanmar's capacity to forge peace with ethnic armies will depend largely on whether the groups receive arms, ammunition and other support from Beijing
When the second 21st Century Panglong peace conference opens on May 24, government representatives will need to engage ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) from two distinct regional blocs. While all EAOs have similar grievances and political demands, their divergent security situations and negotiating leverages will complicate government efforts to forge a genuine Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
In Myanmar’s insurgency-prone north and northeast, China has powerful influence over armed groups fighting against Myanmar government forces. Politically and strategically, Beijing is known to view the groups as a strategic buffer and bargaining chip in negotiations with Naypyidaw, particularly over its significant trade and investment with the neighboring country.
This translates into supportive relationships with Myanmar’s EAOs operating in the north and northeast, some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the country. Some of these groups, namely United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), are successor organizations to the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma (BCP).
They were established following the mutiny of ethnic rank and file against their largely Burman commanders and political leaders in 1989. China continues to support these organizations through commercial and cultural connections, development programs, and, more importantly to the civil war, through the provision of military hardware, ammunition and other supplies, and training.
The UWSA, the largest and best equipped of Myanmar’s EAOs, has received heavy artillery, man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) surface-to-air missiles and light armored vehicles, as well as training in how to use the equipment from China. The armed group also operates a small arms factory built with Chinese support from which it supplies weapons to other EAOs, particularly in the northeast.
When the MNDAA and its leader, Peng Jiasheng, were forced out of the Shan State’s Kokang region of northeast Myanmar into China’s southwestern Yunnan province by a Myanmar army offensive in 2009, Beijing provided shelter to the fleeing rebels. When the MNDAA reentered Myanmar in 2015, it was markedly stronger and better armed than before, likely due to Chinese support.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), traditionally wary of China, also benefits through trade ties and certain logistics support. Through the UWSA and KIO, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), and Arakan Army (AA) have received weapons and training indirectly from China. Together, the northern EAOs represent the largest and best armed groups in the country.
Thailand, the traditional backer of EAOs in Myanmar’s southeast, has over time shifted its view of the insurgent groups. Once viewed and used as a buffer against a traditional enemy, they are now seen as an impediment to cross-border trade and investment opportunities as Myanmar opens to the world.
Previously a profitable conduit for black market weapons and ammunition facilitated by tacit support from elements in the government and military, Bangkok is now actively encouraging EAOs along its border to sign ceasefires and engage in the Myanmar government’s peace process.
In addition to increased trade and investment, particularly in agriculture, natural resources and energy, Bangkok is aiming to further limit the narcotics trade out of Myanmar, control illegal immigration and encourage the repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees in camps that for decades have dotted its border.
The main EAOs along the Thai-Myanmar border – Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), and Karenni National Progress Party (KNPP) – lost their profitable tax gates for black market trade between Myanmar and Thailand in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Since then, trade has largely shifted to official border crossings at Mae Sot-Myawaddy and Sangkhlaburi-Pyathounzu, as well as smaller government controlled crossings. Losses in territory have further eroded the ability of EAOs to raise funds through the exploitation of natural resources from logging and mining.
For instance, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), another group opposed to the Myanmar government, has been intermittently blocked access to Thailand due to its alleged involvement in the narcotics trade. Though because it can still source weapons through Myanmar’s Shan state from the north, where China-supported groups are active, it is not totally reliant on Thailand for its survival.
Moreover, stocks of Vietnam War-era weaponry have dried up and Thailand has recently become much less willing to turn a blind eye to illicit arms sales to these groups through its territory. Thailand’s government and military, while no doubt involved in the past, have never been a major source of arms and ammunition in the same way as China has provided support to EAOs in Myanmar’s north.
In 1995, heavy Thai pressure was an important factor in the NMSP’s ceasefire that year. In the 2000s and up until the KNU’s ceasefire in 2012, Bangkok put pressure on the armed group to avoid destabilizing armed clashes along its border. In the 2000s, it also sporadically shut down Karen supply routes across the Moei and Salween Rivers to influence KNU policy.
Chinese backing also allows the northern EAOs to negotiate with Naypyidaw from a position of greater strength than more isolated armed groups in the south. They have been able to fight a war in which the Myanmar military has incurred significant casualties and the EAOs have been able to secure autonomous control over significant swaths of territory.
Indeed, these groups’ ability to replenish their supplies of arms and ammunition from China allows them to continue the fight at an intensity not seen since the conflict-ridden 1980s. It also puts them in a stronger position at the negotiating table, especially if the UWSA-led Pangshang grouping of northern EAOs consolidate into a cohesive negotiating bloc.
The Pangshang grouping, named after the Wa state’s capital, has already stated they will not sign the government’s NCA in its present form and that they aim to negotiate new more favorable terms. The main southern groups – KNU, NMSP, RCSS, KNPP and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) – face a much different situation.
Without the political or economic backing of Thailand or access to weapons and ammunition, as well as the real possibility of a Thai blockade of cross-border supplies, there is little potential for rearming, raising substantial new recruits, or taking back lost territory as China-backed groups have done.
The level of conflict in the north, including a particularly pitched battle between government forces and the KIO, would be impossible to replicate in the south without a dramatic shift in Thailand’s current position.
That’s viewed as unlikely under either the current military regime and the possible comeback of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra’s Peua Thai party at future polls, as both have eagerly sought business opportunities in Myanmar.
The main armed groups – KNU, RCSS and DKBA – have already signed the NCA, while NMSP and KNPP are rumored to be amenable to signing but it is still uncertain if they will attend the upcoming conference on May 24.
Other NCA signatories – Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU/KNLAPC), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Chin National Front (CNF), and Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), and All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) – all have negligible soldiers under arms.
The reality of Myanmar’s ethnic civil war is that while many groups share the same grievances, including calls for ethnic rights, self-determination and federalism, there are specific regional and political differences that will require a more nuanced government approach if Panglong is to have a chance at achieving genuine and lasting peace.
Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based independent analyst