When the second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference was held last month, China emerged as the most important foreign player. Other countries long associated with the push for peace before the current process took shape have had to fine-tune their roles to ensure the process is inclusive.
This is an indigenous effort to end a half century of war between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. Unlike other peace processes in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, where a third-party mediator or facilitator is often called upon to assist the conflicting groups. However, the current peace effort faces a challenge from assertive outside players, whose core interests would be affected if they remain benign.
The second Panglong ended inclusively over longstanding key issues related to secession and federalism.
Further dialogue will continue and intensify in coming months to try to get the remaining armed ethnic groups to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement and push the political dialogue forward.
But there is still a lot of uncertainty as members of the Northern Alliance are still pondering their future role in the peace process despite pressure from Beijing.
Zhao Guo An, head of Wa State’s External Relations Department, was succinct in noting that the group’s participation in the initial part of the second conference was due to China persuading Nay Pyi Taw to allow this. So, with Beijing firmly embedded in the peace process, Myanmar and other concerned countries must step up efforts to engage all stakeholders in this long-running civil strife.
China has really gone beyond its so-called “non-involvement policy” in regard to Myanmar’s internal affairs by calling for a peaceful solution. Myanmar’s tacit support of such a move is pivotal due to the strong linkage between two countries’ core interests.
With Aung San Suu Kyi’s repeated visits to Beijing and a surprise stopover in Yunnan, ties between Myanmar and China have never been closer.
While President Xi Jinping has given priority to his grand strategy known as Belt and Road Initiatives, China now is ready to get involved head-on to ensure that its wider regional core interest is not derailed. To achieve this mammoth scheme, China requires a peace and stability within the region, especially close to home.
Unmistakably, the pipelines from Kyauk Phyu in Rakhine State to Yunnan is a vital energy lifeline operating is an area that is extremely strategic for development in China’s southwest.
Lest we forget, Beijing’s desire to break the region’s isolation and impoverishment was a primary justification for the launching its Belt and Road initiatives in 2013.
That helped explain why last month in a surprise announcement Beijing said it would offer to mediate a diplomatic row over the flight of displaced people from Rakhine State. China understands well how conflicts or violence could disruptive impact on this energy lifeline, which cuts across sensitive areas inside Myanmar.
Before China normalised ties with Southeast Asian countries in the mid-1990’s, Beijing decided to halt all assistance to communist insurgents operating in the region. Indeed, before Thailand decided to open diplomatic ties with China, former foreign minister ACM Siddhi Savestila received a personal guarantee from Chinese leaders that clandestine radio stations in Yunnan run by the former Communist Party of Thailand would be shut down.
China does not have such a dilemma as in the 1990s. However, judging from its diplomatic behaviour, it could safely be concluded when push comes to shove, Beijing will consider overall strategic values of its core interests that must be protected at all costs.
Sooner than later, that will be visible in China’s engagement in the Myanmar peace process and its handling of armed groups on their mutual border.
Apart from China, the EU and US have also been providing assistance to facilitate political dialogue and build confidence between the government and armed groups. Their financial assistance to the previous regime headed by Thein Sein laid the groundwork for trust-building and role-play, which was needed to nation-building and the reconciliation process. Under the current setting, their roles have not received less attention.
Japan’s role in the peace process must be highlighted because of its humanitarian nature. Tokyo even appointed a special envoy — Yohei Sasagawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation – to engage exclusively to boost the peace and reconciliation process.
Tokyo has been generous in providing financial and humanitarian aid to numerous ethnic communities in areas troubled by conflict.
Japan drew lessons from its engagement with a divided Southeast Asia in the 1970s by helping to create a conducive environment, particularly for economic development and social well-being so conflicting parties were able to work together after conflict had ended.
On Myanmar’s eastern flank, Thailand also has been providing logistical support for armed groups to meet and hold talks in Chiang Mai and other places.
So far, Bangkok has shied away from playing a major role out of fear that it could jeopardise the delicate peace process. Their 2,401km-long border is now peaceful, so both countries are planning how they can turn their border areas into economic zones to attract local and foreign investment.
Bilateral ties are excellent currently, which allows them to work on sensitive issues such as the strategy to resettle refugees from Myanmar in Thailand, which was one issue discussed in the second peace summit. About 100,000 refugees live in nine shelters along the border.
Last October, 71 people were resettled and more are in the pipeline.
It remains to be seen how outside players can help the peace process both openly or behind the scenes. But one trend is clear, Myanmar must engage all outsiders in a balanced way, that considers their transitional roles and aspirations. Failure to do so would jeopardise Myanmar’s efforts to enjoy peace and build a secure nation.