Myanmar reconciliation still has a long way to go
Published: May 31, 2017 11:13 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The second 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference ended in Nay Pyi Taw Monday with some breakthroughs. China expended enormous efforts to prompt seven armed ethnic groups in northern Myanmar to attend this session, however, it will take more time and negotiations to ultimately reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

Prior to the postponed second round, some in Myanmar argued that China matters a lot to whether a national ceasefire agreement will be signed, which was misleading public opinion.

Sithu Aung Myint, a political scholar, published a commentary piece "China, please extinguish the flame that you kindled" in the Frontier Myanmar in early April, in which he claimed the ethnic armed groups reluctant to sign ceasefires were leftovers following the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989 and had been backed by China since. "If Beijing withdrew support for the groups they would collapse," he asserted.

This misguided analysis blaming China for Myanmar's ethnic conflicts echoes the Western logic and makes no contribution to increasing the mutual trust between the people of Myanmar and other ethnic groups.

The prolonged ethnic conflict blighting Myanmar is actually a consequence of British colonial rule. Colonial Britain's longstanding policy of "divide-and- conquer" only solidified the sense of identity of ethnic groups and intensified their confrontation.

In the 1960s, China made immense concessions when demarcating the border with Myanmar and has since then strictly adhered to the accord. While it is true that Beijing's support for communist parties in Southeast Asia exerted some influence upon Myanmar in the past, however, these effects have long since been rectified as the country adopted more reform and opening-up policies.

China's main influence upon Myanmar is largely economic, a result of a spillover effect brought about by China's unprecedented development. If Beijing had a strategic scheme or ulterior motives, the Myitsone dam project would not have come to a halt. Instead, longstanding and heavy-handed Western sanctions have exacerbated Myanmar's ethnic conflict.

As a neighbor with powerful political, economic and cultural clout, China does not need ethnic armed groups as bargaining chips. It hopes to see a stable Myanmar simply because only stability can provide a guarantee for the common development of both countries.

I once visited a refugee camp bordering Thailand and mid-eastern Myanmar. Some refugees fled there from regions far from the China-Myanmar boundary and had no connections to the Chinese minorities. Many were forced to flee to Thailand due to constant strikes by the Tatmadaw, the military force.

In Rakhine state in western Myanmar, thousands of Rohingya are left homeless and undocumented. Recently there are signs that extremist groups are intervening in this region. Can these problems really be attributed to China?

At the second round of the Panglong Conference, one of the major issues remaining was the mistrust of the armed ethnic groups toward the Tatmadaw. They do not accept the "sole army" principle proposed by the federal government and demand the military reallocate 25 percent of seats in parliament.

Whether Myanmar can achieve national reconciliation is mostly related to the nationalist sentiment of the Burmese people. In light of the challenges facing emerging economies, when a country's politics starts an opening-up process and adopts a democratic election system, issues concerning ethnic groups tend to become more acute and complicated.

In today's open environment, populism and nationalism are more intertwined than ever. Interest groups such as the military and bureaucrats still hold the real power. The National League for Democracy lacks full political control, leaving the country's transformation at a standstill.

Beijing's Belt and Road initiative has created a unique opportunity for Myanmar's democratic reform. As a responsible neighbor, China is promoting Myanmar's national reconciliation through intense political effort and providing a foundation for economic cooperation.

All stakeholders in Myanmar are expected to seize the opportunity to comprehensively upgrade the nation's economy. Myanmar's political elite should refrain from blindly following the whims of Western strategic analysis by suspecting China's policy and harming bilateral relations.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina