Ruili, located in the west part of Yunnan province is a beautiful border port city. It borders Myanmar in the northwest, southwest and southeast. In the history of Myanmar, Ruili will leave an important mark for hosting some “special” Myanmar guests. On Feb 4, the central government of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) reached an initial result in their latest round of communications in Ruili. This has apparently helped to subside the conflict in northern Myanmar that has lasted for more than a year. Global Times journalists recently visited Ruili, Kachin state and Wa state in northern Myanmar for interviews. One senior leader of the Wa state said the ethnic groups in northern Myanmar have to play the dual role of “black smith and driver” to coexist peacefully with the central government- they need to be strong, as well as to know the timing and direction of peace talks. Other than the fact that the two sides no longer wish to drag out the conflict, the location of the talks underwent several changes and finally ended in Ruili, China. This has raised eyebrows in the outside world, with popular comments such as: “China plays the arbitration card. Its protection of its national interests is completely reasonable.”

7-hour meeting laid the foundation for peace talks

The head of the KIO central delegation Sumlut Gam made his first comment on the 5th: “The talks yesterday were only preparatory to further dialogue between the two sides. We cannot say for sure how optimistic we are about reaching a peace agreement because we don’t know what they think. But of course, I think it is a good thing that we can continue this type of talk in the future.” The spokesperson for the Myanmar President stated on the same day that: “The fact that other ethnic groups that have reached peace agreements with the government were willing to witness this round of the talks is a positive sign.”
“In Ruili, China, 7 hours of talks between the Kachin and the Myanmar government led to a statement.” Foreign media have paid much attention to the talks hosted in a Ruili hotel. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the KIA and the Myanmar Peace Committee agreed to ease military tensions, to open channels of communications and to invite observers. The two sides agreed to host new talks before the end of February.” Although the WSJ called the statement “far from being a peace agreement”, according to the analysis of the Associated Press, with China’s support, Myanmar “sought to end the conflict that had cast a shadow over the major political reforms.” A Chinese official who attended the talks told Global Times: “This is a correct step.” This official’s most important message to the journalist was that the two sides agreed that senior military officers would attend the next round of official peace talks.

The Financial Times reported on the 5th that “For the Kachin, they are still uncertain what the peace talks are about and the distrust of the government continues.” A leader of the “88 Generation”, a Myanmar opposition, Ge Ge Tung stated that the Kachin, lacking trust in the government, made the presence of “witnesses” a precondition for the talks with the government, so the presence of China and other ethnic groups in Ruili helped to build the Kachin trust in the government and may even lay the foundation for a long-term solution of the Kachin conflict. Jane’s Intelligence analysts believe that although it could not be determined whether the representatives of the two sides had met with “changed attitudes”, the meeting itself still could be seen as “concrete measures to strengthen trust.”

Senior officials of the ethnic groups in northern Myanmar see themselves as “blacksmiths and drivers”
Two members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the United Wa State Party of special region number two in the Shan State were one of the driving forces of the peace talks between the Kachin and the central government. One member disclosed the strenuous path to the negotiating table in an exclusive interview with Global Times: “The Kachin and the central government changed the negotiation location three times. The Kachin delegation was unwilling to go to Naypyidaw and the Central government wouldn’t come to Laiza. Therefore, Bangkok was chosen to host the talks and the Kachin even sent its delegation to Thailand, but the Central government did not send anyone. Then the two sides talked about hosting the dialogue at the capital of Wa state, Kangbang. But in the end, both agreed to talk in Ruili, China.” The member emphasized: “The choice of the negotiation location illustrates the trust in the mediator.” Mr. Zhao, a senior official of the Wa state foreign affairs department told Global Times: “While the two sides were discussing the possibility of hosting the talks in BangKang, the government requested that KIO and KIA write a letter to express their willingness to hold peace talks with the government in BangKang. We eventually did not receive the Kachin’s response to such a minor request.”

It was not easy to drag the Kachin and the government to the negotiating table. To achieve something from the talks is even more difficult. Rounds of talks in the past did not bring any substantive breakthroughs.  A member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the United Wa State Party told Global Times that “KIO and KIA had been vague about their desire for greater autonomy and ethnic rights without elaborating specific goals and requests.” This Wa leader, who has been playing a go-between role with the senior leadership of the KIA and President Thein Sein, made a vivid analogy: “The ethnic groups in northern Myanmar must play two roles in working with the Myanmar central government – both blacksmiths and drivers. Being a blacksmith means the ethnic groups must be strong enough to gain the opportunity to have an equal dialogue with the government. Being a driver means they have to be deft in making turns at the right time and place instead of just sticking to one direction  inflexibly.”

Mr. Zhao from the Wa State foreign affairs department thinks the Kachin have little leverage left. After losing Hka Ya Bum, the strategic shield of Laiza, the KIA has been forced to relocate its headquarters. If the Tatmadaw wishes to take over Laiza, “it won’t take them long”. According to Mr. Zhao, one of the requests by the KIA is for the Tatmadaw to “withdraw to where they were before the conflict.” But he frankly called it “impossible.” The government representatives also promised the Financial Times that the Tatmadaw will abide by the ceasefire agreement. But a Baoshan businessman living in Laiza called Global Times on the 5th, saying “ there were 3 to 4 artillery shells being fired at 2:36 am on the 5th, most likely landing close to Laiza.”

According to the Standing Committee member of the United State Wa Party Politburo, “the Myanmar military and civilian government are proceeding at different paces because the current Constitution gives the Tatmadaw special privileges on national security matters, which put it beyond the control of the government. For the military interest groups, political transition has deprived them of many of the privileges they enjoyed under the junta. To protect their future status, they are certain to have “some confrontations” with the civilian government on military issues. This is a major obstacle in the negotiations.”

Another factor that blocks the progress in the negotiation is the lack of trust in the Tatmadaw due to long-term conflict and the semi-independence of the local ethnic groups. An official from the Wa foreign affairs department said that this distrust is not limited to the Kachin. When the tension is high between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Tatmadaw, the UWSA is easily mobilized when they are reminded that: “If you can’t defeat the Tatmadaw, they will hurt your wives and daughters and rob your properties.” Therefore, even if the Kachin senior leadership could reach a peace agreement with the central government, how to placate those middle and lower class Kachin people who have been traumatized during the war is another real problem.

The growth of northern Myanmar needs peace negotiation

Nevertheless, peace talks are the only solution to the northern Myanmar problem.  In the MengA passage at the MengLian port in Yunnan adjacent to Bangkang, Global Times witnessed a long queue of trucks transporting gas, groceries, and construction materials through the Customs point. In 2011, more than 770,000 people and more than 300,000 tons of products crossed the border through MengLian port.  Due to the rapid development of bilateral trade, the MengLian county decided to build a new port 2 km to the west of the old port and establish an MengLian border economic cooperation zone. Based on this plan, by 2020, the estimated trade volume, product volume and number of people crossing the border would reach 5 billion RMB, 1 million tons and 3 million people.

On Feb 3, in the capital city of Wa state BangKang, the Global Times witnessed a high-standard cement expressway leading into the mountain along the Nanka river, along with some 800,000 acres of rubber plantations under a crop substitution program, which are already producing rubber. “We are removing several hills to build a new town of BangKang.” One Wa state official commented that “if there is to be a conflict between UWSA and Tatmadaw, economic development would become impossible.” The leadership of the Wa state made the right choice based on this reality and started negotiations to ensure the construction of this infrastructure. Mr. Zhao, who participated in the peace talks with the central government in 2011 said: “Mutual compromise was key to the success of the negotiations. We met with the representatives of the government at Kyiangtong and signed an agreement. But in fact the two sides had already engaged in several rounds of talks about the content and approach of the negotiations prior to the meeting. The senior leaders of Wa State even had direct phone calls with President Thein Sein. That’s how we decided on the details such as setting up liaison offices, maintaining communication channels and sending representatives, etc.”

The political demand of the Wa state is clear: the Wa hope the government will give the ethnic groups equal rights in the nation’s constitution. A senior Wa leader told the Global Times: “Most of the 11 ethnic group armed forces have signed peace agreements with the central government using the same dialogue model as the Wa did. I hope the Kachin will achieve the same result.” He was honest: “President Thein Sein’s aspiration for peace is in fact very obvious.”

“Everyone wants peace. No one wants war. Only with peace could we develop.” The combat commander of the 618 Legion of the UWSA stationed in the mountain areas shielding BangKang told the Global Times. However, the Global Times also noticed that permanent defense structures have been built in all the mountains confronting the Tatmadaw. Some of the structures were built with cement as thick as several meters.  Artillery troops were stationed underground. This was a sharp contrast with the shabby frontline of the KIA. Although UWSA soldiers receive only 25 kg of rice and about 100-200 RMB for food every month, their morale is very high.

China’s being the “arbitrator” is reasonable

About the peace talks of northern Myanmar, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated on the 4th and 5th that “Both sides expressed gratitude for China’s assistance. China is willing to continue to play a constructive role in the peace talks.” “This is the first direct communication between the two sides since the escalation of the conflict.” “China congratulates Myanmar on achieving agreement on important issues such as a ceasefire and peace talks between the two sides.” “China hopes the two sides will keep their promises, maintain contact, and work for genuine, lasting peace in northern Myanmar. China is willing to continue to play a constructive role in the peace talk.”

Foreign media have made ample comments about China’s active mediation. The Financial Times believes the role of China “should not be underestimated”. The paper cited officials in the dialogue between Karen armed forces and the government: “The role of China is particularly important. This is also an unprecedented case of China playing its foreign policy card.” South Korea’s Joongang Daily commented on the 5th that while U.S. is coveting Myanmar, China showed its “arbitrator” card and “China for the first time played the role of mediator in the internal conflict of a neighboring country to defend its interest. This is reasonable.” This is because Myanmar has a key position in China’s foreign strategy. In recent years, the U.S. tried to expand its influence in Asia, holding a biased position on issues such as the South China Sea. And China is confronting it to prevent the U.S. from dominating Asia. Now the same story is going on in Myanmar. The Wall Street Journal analyzed on the 5th that China intervened in the peace dialogue to prevent the border situation from deteriorating (given the 100,000 refugees gathering on Chinese border). In the 2008 Kokang conflict, the large numbers of refugees created major issues for China’s border security. Ian Storey from Singapore Institute of Southeast Asia said “China’s main interest in intervening in the peace talks is to maintain border stability.” He believes the favorable condition for China is the close relationship China has enjoyed with both sides of the conflict.

A member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the United Wa State Party who had fought against the drug lords in the Golden Triangle with the Tatmadaw for many years told the Global Times: “The promotion of peace between the Kachin and the central government is extremely important for the safety of the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines and other major Chinese projects in Myanmar. Using the KIA as an example, if the KIA disintegrates like a hive, thousands of bees will attack the target they each identify, which might lead to another group of Nuokang, who created the tragic Mekong incident.” On this, a Chinese expert familiar with northern Myanmar affairs believes that it is not easy for China to actively intervene in the affairs of northern Myanmar because China does not only need to provide the location for the negotiation, but also needs to understand the demands of both sides in order to mediate. The expert emphasized that “we should expand our focus on northern Myanmar because the affairs here are not only a matter of the stability of China’s southwest border. They have already been elevated to a national strategic level a long time ago.”