March 31, 2017 4:30 pm JST

Why China is wooing Myanmar's ethnic minority groups

Diplomacy shift suggests Beijing thinks Suu Kyi's days are numbered

MOTOKAZU MATSUI, Nikkei staff writer

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, says making peace with ethnic minority groups is her top priority at home, but negotiations have made little headway. (Photo by Motokazu Matsui)

YANGON -- China is trying to increase its influence in Myanmar, and it is using the tensions between the government and ethnic minorities to gain leverage.

By reaching out to major minority groups, such as the Shan and Rakhine, Beijing hopes to create pro-Chinese sentiment and new avenues to investment, which grew stagnant during the Thein Sein regime, in power between 2011 and 2016.

The diplomatic shift sheds light on the fragility of the current Myanmar government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who officially serves as state counselor.

Unusually calm

Members of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an armed ethnic Chinese rebel group, on March 6 attacked facilities and private homes belonging to national security authorities in the Kokang region of Shan State, in the country's northeast.

The MNDAA has controlled parts of Kokang, which shares a border with China, since the 1990s. Armed clashes between Myanmar military forces and the rebels have continued sporadically.

The fighting on March 6 resulted in some 50 deaths on both sides, making it the deadliest such incident since the National League for Democracy took power in March 2016. The violence saw more than 20,000 people seek refuge in China's Yunan Province. That did not guarantee their safety, however, as some bombs crossed the border, injuring Chinese citizens as well.

What could have quickly blown up into a major international incident was defused by China's unexpectedly mild response.

At a news conference on March 9, Geng Shuang, deputy director general of the Information Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called for the parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and immediately cease hostilities. Geng did not criticize the rebels for triggering the clash or demand compensation for the damage from the Myanmar government.

It was a strangely muted response from a government usually so strident about defending its territorial rights.

An event in Beijing last year may offer clues about why China remained so calm. In December, the Communist Party of China invited about 20 leaders from five political parties representing the interests of ethnic minorities in Myanmar to Beijing to exchange views on developing the border region and other issues.

Ethnic Burmese make up about 60% of Myanmar's population, but the country is home to over 130 ethnic groups, some of whom have been in conflict with the government for half a century. China has reached out to minority groups along the border in northern Myanmar before, but the group invitation, including to leaders of a party representing the Rakhine people in the west, was virtually unprecedented.

"China paid for our flight to Beijing and five-star hotel," said a leader of the Arakan National Party, which represents the Rakhine people. "We were received with overwhelming hospitality during our nine-day stay, including being treated to the finest local cuisine."

Life after Suu Kyi

A senior Communist Party official who welcomed the leaders from the five parties briefed them on road-improvement and other China-backed projects underway in Myanmar, and pledged to forward their requests for support in education and other areas to the party leadership.

The official then asked "whether Suu Kyi is a capable leader" and "what would happen if something happened to her."

One member of the visiting delegation said China was keen to reinforce its ties with Myanmar's ethnic minority groups and develop a picture of the post-Suu Kyi era. As for China's low-key stance on the recent violence in Shan State, he said the government did not want to anger minority groups.

China and Myanmar share a long border and have ties dating back a long time. Their closest days came in the second half of the 2000s, when China provided support to a Myanmar reeling from Western sanctions against its military government. That period saw massive inflows of Chinese investment to its neighbor.

But most of those projects greatly benefited China in terms of profit-sharing, fueling public discontent in Myanmar over China's "economic control" of the country.

The situation has drastically changed since 2011, when Myanmar began transitioning from military rule to a civilian democracy. Determined to improve ties with the international community, the Thein Sein government, keenly aware of public sentiment, sought to reduce the country's economic dependence on China. One manifestation of that shift was to freeze construction of a massive dam by a Chinese company.

On the surface, China appeared to take the new stance in stride. Behind the scenes, however, Beijing was working hard to reverse the trend. In particular, it tried to woo then-opposition leader Suu Kyi. When she entered national politics in 2012 after being released from house arrest, the Communist Party repeatedly invited her to visit China, anticipating that she and her NLD would eventually rise to power.

Though initially reluctant to make the trip due to China's poor track record on human rights, she finally acquiesced. During her first visit there, in June 2015, Suu Kyi received exceptional treatment and was given separate meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

As Beijing had expected, the NLD won the general election in November 2015 and formed a government under Suu Kyi's leadership in March 2016. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar the following month, becoming the first foreign minister among major countries to hold talks with Suu Kyi. Upon China's request, she flew to Beijing again in August and once again received a warm welcome.

Backing a new horse

Today, however, China is quickly moving away from its Suu Kyi-focused approach to engagement with Myanmar.

Last autumn -- about six months after the NLD government took power -- senior diplomats from the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar began descending on the Yangon headquarters of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, often bearing gifts.

"[The Chinese diplomats] ask us what China can do for Shan. China always tries to be on the winning side," said a leader of the party, which represents the country's biggest ethnic minority group. "It's possible that China has changed its mind because it thinks the NLD can't govern this country."

It is a fact that the domestic situation has grown less stable under Suu Kyi's leadership. Just one example: The Thein Sein government reached cease-fire agreements with eight of the 20 major rebel groups, compared with zero for the NLD administration.

Although Suu Kyi positions an armistice involving all armed groups as her most pressing domestic issue, clashes frequently occur in Shan State and elsewhere due to the inability of the military and minority groups to negotiate deals. A nationwide cease-fire, initially planned for February, remains elusive.

The first national election since the NLD swept to power is slated for April 1. The SNLD and other parties are forecast to perform well in areas where ethnic minorities wield heavy influence.

China may be approaching minority groups because it senses that Suu Kyi's star is fading. Again, a closer look at the invitation to the party leaders last December suggests Beijing has specific plans.

The five ethnic groups represented by those officials, including the Rakhine and Shan people, occupy an unbroken corridor of land running from the Myanmar coast along the Indian Ocean all the way to the Chinese border. Along that stretch of land are pipelines carrying oil and gas to China, which began laying the pipes during the era of military rule.

With roughly 10% of China's crude oil imports coming through Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country plays an important role in China's energy security.

China may be eyeing that corridor with the hope of one day adding ports, power stations, oil refineries and other facilities along the pipelines to revitalize investment, a diplomatic source said.

New Silk Road

Meanwhile, Beijing is pressing ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative to create an economic corridor linking China with other countries in Asia as well as Africa and Europe. Myanmar is a strategic point in the initiative, as it is one of China's gateways to the Indian Ocean.

Today, Myanmar may serve a route for Chinese oil imports, but Beijing may be looking to use it as a base for exports to the Indian Ocean.

In any case, China's wooing of ethnic minority groups in Myanmar poses a major threat to Suu Kyi. If Beijing increases its influence in areas where minorities hold the most power, its chances of regaining its former economic dominance will also increase.

Ethnic minority groups, meanwhile, may use their ties with China as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the NLD government to win more rights.

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