Myanmar: China Plays The Tribal Factions

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August 19, 2020: Up north the Union Peace Conference, formerly the 21st Century Panglong Conference, is once more crippled because of disagreements over who is eligible to attend the conference. The fourth and last round of negotiations before the new Union Peace agreement with the tribal rebels is signed is to take place August 19-21. This meeting has run into problems because one coalition, the NA (Northern, or Brotherhood Alliance) tribal rebels refuse to attend unless the government allows the AA (Arakan Army) to attend. The AA and the army have been fighting for nearly two years. Most of the casualties have been civilians, including 274 neutral and pro-rebel villagers dead plus over 200,000 civilians displaced.

The government, pressured by the army, declared the AA an outlaw organization in March. The other tribal rebels disagreed and saw the army as the true outlaws. No long-term peace deal is possible without the NA but some NA members are still engaged in combat with the army. All NA members agree that if the AA is not allowed to attend the conference, neither will any NA member. The NA consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA, MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). The NA exists because its members refused to sign the 2015 Burmese Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the Burmese government and military. The army, which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north, is the primary cause of this violence. China is also involved because Northern Alliance members survive via their access to China. The access is tolerated as long as these Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma. This includes the BRI project, which NA members object to. So do other tribal rebels and the largest such group, the UWSA (United Wa State Army) is also boycotting the August 19th conference.

The “21st Century Panglong Conference” peace effort has been underway since 2015. The last negotiating sessions were in 2018, 2017 and 2016. In 2018 all the armed tribal factions showed up and although these factions still have some differences with each other the one thing that unites them is their distrust of the army and belief that there cannot be peace as long as the army is independent of government control. That won’t change until the provisions of the 2011 constitution, which the military demanded before they would allow the return of democracy, are changed. That change is underway but will take time. Meanwhile the army does whatever it wants in the tribal areas and sees that as a perpetual state of war, not something they can make peace with.

Because of the situation with the army, a peace deal in the north is still a work in progress. Most of the visible progress is superficial. For example, in late 2016 the government and various tribal groups agreed to continue with the “Panglong Conferences” in an effort to negotiate a long-term peace deal. The 2017 meeting was well attended by representatives from nearly all tribal groups. But even though over 750 delegates showed up nothing was really resolved. In 2018 everyone was invited, not just those who signed the NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement) in 2016. The main dissidents were a seven-member alliance led by the UWSA plus the KIA, TNLA, AA, NDAA, SSA-N and MNDAA which did not agree to come until the last minute. The USWA was pressured by China (the Wa are ethnic Chinese living on both sides of the border) to attend and bring the rest of the alliance with them. China again used its persuasive powers to get everyone to the 2018 conference.

At the 2017 conference Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement that ousted the army in 2011 met separately with the leaders of each the seven alliance members. Several weeks after the conference the alliance said that in the future they would only meet with government leaders, especially military ones, as a group and not one-on-one. The UWSA-led alliance is the most powerful group not only because they have good connections in China and Thailand but because they are active in the drug trade and have plenty of cash. That means they are well armed and form a military opponent the Burmese Army has never been able to subdue. With the help of China the Burmese Army could defeat the rebels but the Chinese want much in return, especially in terms of cooperation in keeping the tribes from interfering with Chinese economic projects in the north. At the moment those Chinese projects are one of the major problems the tribes have with the government.

The tribes continue to find it difficult to unite, even for something that is mutually beneficial to all the tribes. Most tribal organizations now support the idea of a peace deal but have been unable to achieve much progress on key issues. The causes of all this tribal strife go back a long way. Fighting between government forces and tribal rebels has, since 1948, left over 200,000 dead and crippled economic growth in the border areas being fought over.

Now known as the “Union Peace Conference” rather than “21st Century Panglong”, the conferences area a long-sought effort to update the original 1947 Panglong Conference held between the tribes and British colonial authorities just before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for the tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor (in this case former British colonies India and Burma) would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal in the 21st century is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea is to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement. India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels.

In Burma there are also many disputes between various tribes. Many of the tribal coalitions are held together mainly by the need to unite for mutual defense from the army attacks and sometimes other tribes as well. Peace with the national government leads to more factionalism among the tribal coalitions. This is already happening in those areas that have been a peace for a year or so. As democracy returned to Burma after 2011 the army was forced to reduce their operations against the tribes. That process is continuing and with it comes more opportunities for tribes to revive ancient tribal feuds.

During the 2018 conference China increased its use of favors (or threats, as needed) to persuade all the tribes to show up. China then sought to make deals with various factions and groups, including the army and the Burmese government. China is less active in 2020 because of covid19, economic and diplomatic problems.

Despite those distractions the main Chinese goal in Burma is still about completing its economic projects, mainly those connected with the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative)/ Obor (One Belt, One Road) project. BRI is all about China building roads, railroads, pipelines and ports to make it easier for Chinese imports and exports to move around. Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka and Burma are all BRI participants that are seeing billions of dollars in construction Chinese projects taking place and the terms of these deals tend to favor China, not the country where the construction takes place. Not surprisingly many people in these BRI countries see the Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. The Burmese tribes have long depended on Chinese cash and diplomatic influence to survive. Most Burmese are suspicious of any involvement with BRI.

August 17, 2020: It’s been three years now that nearly a million Rohingya refugees have been an involuntary presence in Bangladesh. While the refugees were welcomed when they arrived in large numbers during 2017, after about a year the presence of nearly a million displaced Rohingya in an already crowded country became a problem. Most of the Rohingya refugees are in an area called Cox’s Bazaar and their presence tripled the local population. At first the locals were eager to help fellow Moslems, for a few months at least. But that expected short visit has gone on for three years and there is no end in sight. The appearance of the covid19 virus has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages.

August 5, 2020: Burma has gained another dubious distinction; the longest Internet ban ever recorded. In northwestern Burma, parts of Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, have had Internet access blocked for over a year. Today the last of those Internet blockages were lifted. The Internet shutdown began June 21 2019 and initially applied to several areas in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state. Internet access was subsequently restored in all of Chin State but the shutdown continued in parts of Rakhine State where the army had been fighting AA rebels. This fighting had been going on since early 2019 and was made worse by the fact that the AA, unlike most tribal rebel groups up there, have always been more gangster than champion of tribal rights.

Cell phones came late to northern Burma. This was part of many changes that took place after the Burmese military finally agreed to end their decades of military rule and allow elections in 2011. The army staged a coup in the 1960s and managed to hold onto power for nearly half a century. Elections meant a lifting of military restrictions on communications and cell phone service flooded the country bringing many regions, particularly the tribal north, affordable and widespread phone service for the first time ever. The army soon found out that the tribal rebels used cell phones not just for operational communications but to stay in touch with their civilian supporters. This is the reason for the long Internet shutdown in Rakhine State, which is supposed to be lifted at the end of July but was delayed about a week.

August 4, 2020: In the north (Shan State) about a hundred villagers fled across the border into China to avoid fighting between SSA-S rebels and soldiers. The fighting was triggered by a dispute over who controls a timber smuggling route. A persistent complaint of the tribal rebels is the army seeking to take over money-making enterprises, often illegal, that the rebels operate to sustain themselves.

August 3, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine State) several clashes between the AA and the security forces since yesterday caused several dozen casualties including at over a dozen dead.

July 29, 2020: In northeast India an Indian army patrol was attacked by tribal rebels using a roadside bomb and gunfire. Three soldiers died and four were wounded. The attack took place near the Burma border and the attackers are suspected of operating from bases across the nearby border in Burma.

July 22, 2020: In the north (Shan State) fighting between SSA-N rebels and soldiers caused over 200 villagers to flee their homes.

 

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