China may have an ulterior motive to play peacemaker in Myanmar

KACHIN STATE, Myanmar — In early March, Myanmar’s government sat down with a coalition of ethnic rebel groups, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), trying to jump-start peace negotiations that had sputtered out after months of escalating fighting.

The meeting had been brokered by China, keen to quell the conflict along its southwestern border.

The keystone for peace in Myanmar is the desires of the UWSA, head of the self-styled Northern Alliance

The Kachin are an ethnic group of about a million people with their own eponymous province, Kachin State, in northern Myanmar.

Ever since a coup brought a junta led by the nation’s ethnic majority Burmese to power in 1962, the Kachin have been fighting for independence as part of a constellation of conflicts that observers have called “the world’s longest-running civil war.”

The KIA is no paltry guerrilla band — it has about 10,000 men and controls much of the Myanmar-China border — and the fighting has been intense. During the past six years, the conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people, and the military has committed widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. With refugees spilling across the border, Beijing has repeatedly emphasized the need for peace.

But China has not always been so conciliatory. As recently as 2011, China was used to getting its way with its much smaller neighbor through force. For five decades, as the junta ruled Myanmar, China had treated its neighbor, which it officially termed a “little brother,” like a client nation, knowing that the regime was isolated by sanctions and had few other places to turn. During the past few decades, China has extracted massive quantities of timber, gold, jade, and other resources from Kachin State — much of it illegally.
Rohingya children from Myanmar play in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar August 17, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
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Rohingya children from Myanmar play in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar August 17, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Thomson ReutersBut Myanmar’s recent democratization and the changing goals of its rebel groups, from fighting off the government to winning the right to run their own states within Myanmar, have forced China to pivot.

The clearest example of China’s changing strategy is the transformation of its efforts to build the Myitsone Dam across the Irrawaddy River.

Before 2011, China planned to sink $3.5 billion into constructing one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world to produce electricity primarily for its cities over the border in Yunnan Province, though about 10 percent of the energy would have gone to Myanmar.

The project was jointly pushed by both countries’ governments and epitomized Naypyidaw’s prioritization of Chinese demands and the money that came with them over local needs.

Yet today, a boulder with the graffiti “No Dam, No War” painted in red stands at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. A few miles downstream, four huge concrete towers thrust out of the water: the unfinished Myitsone Dam.

In September 2011, Myanmar’s new government shocked everyone — especially China — by announcing that work on the dam would be suspended. The reversal was so unexpected that scaffolding still crowns the uncompleted dam, streaking the concrete brown as it rusts.

The suspension seems permanent enough that many Kachin have moved back to their villages. While driving through them we saw women hoeing potatoes and men hammering together new houses on wooden stilts.

This is a sharp reversal of the previous government’s position. Because the dam would flood about 65,000 acres of the surrounding valleys, the junta, with the encouragement of the Chinese, forcibly evicted nearby Kachin villagers through 2011, leading to widespread reports of abuse. “They bulldozed five or six villages without warning,” Htu Hkwang, who lived in one of the villages, told Foreign Policy. “Once people began to protest, they tried to bribe the rest of the villages. When people still wouldn’t move, they threatened them with false legal orders and warned, ‘This place will be covered with water anyway, so you don’t really have a choice.’”

Protests against the dam spread nationwide, on behalf of both the villagers and the river’s fragile ecosystem. Soon, celebrities like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese democracy activist, took up the cause.

REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The size of the crowds surprised everyone. But shortly after the suspension of the dam, China received an even bigger shock. Myanmar was intent on democratizing. In 2015, elections raised up the Nationwide League for Democracy, an opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, though the military retained control of important ministries and substantial influence in the parliament through a new constitution. Instead of a client state on its southwestern border, China had to deal with a government that was keen to find great powers to balance Beijing’s influence.

China’s hopes to restart the dam were complicated by a resumption of fighting between the KIA and Myanmar’s military after a cease-fire had broken down after two decades in 2011, shortly before the dam was put on hold. The instability has often closed the border and threatened China’s huge business interests in timber, gold, and jade. In 2014, Global Witness found that the black market jade trade could be worth up to $31 billion, which is equal to nearly half of Myanmar’s legitimate gross domestic product, most of which flowed from the richest jade mines in the world in east Kachin State. Thousands of Kachin refugees periodically flood Chinese townships.

Given these new realities, it was clear that China would have to change its strong-arm strategies. The country has shifted its approach in an attempt to restart the Myitsone Dam project, from raising the issue during Aung San Suu Kyi’s first diplomatic visit to hearts-and-minds campaigns. A public outreach campaign was funded to convince the Kachin that the dam was in their best interest. Kachin leaders were taken on educational trips to see the benefits of hydropower projects in China. Donations were made to schools and civic organizations. And peace suddenly became a priority.

“In the old days, the Chinese talked directly to the military, and they didn’t have to care about the people because the military was in control,” said Steve Naw Aung, the general secretary for the Kachin Development Networking Group, which organized protests of the Myitsone Dam. “But when the people started to protest and then the new government responded to the democratic pressure, they learned they had to engage with the people.” Still, many Kachin doubted China’s sincerity. “They just want peace so they can happily run their businesses,” Steve Naw Aung said.