Renewed fighting in Shan State exposes flaws in Myanmar-China development plan

Renewed violence between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military in Shan State has thrown joint China-Myanmar development plans into question. Relying on China to broker peace seems an increasingly risky gamble.

By Skylar Lindsay

Since mid-August, violent clashes between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military have increased in Myanmar’s Shan State.

On August 15, members of the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups attacked the Myanmar military’s Defence Services Technological Academy in the northern Shan State town of Pyin Oo Lwin, as well as a police outpost, a narcotics checkpoint and a key bridge on the highway to China. 

“We haven’t seen anything like this in decades of civil war in Myanmar,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Yangon. 

At least 15 people were killed in the violence and over 7,000 people have fled their homes as fighting continues.

“We have to flee quite frequently, but this time has been the worst,” said Maung Kyan, a local resident of a village near the town of Kutkai.

Northern Alliance groups have targeted trade routes linking China’s Yunnan province to Mandalay and the rest of Myanmar, prompting the closure of two key border points at Muse and Chinshwehaw. Chinese officials have met with both sides in an attempt to stop the fighting. 

Northern Alliance leaders met with government representatives for peace talks in Keng Tung on August 31 but there’s been no news of progress towards a resolution.

The conflict area in Northern Shan is central to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both the Chinese and Myanmese governments have pushed forward with development plans for the area without securing lasting peace with the ethnic armed groups in Shan State. 

Bridge of Bawathanthayar east of Heho, Shan State.
Photo: Paingpeace

Autonomy, land and resource management, and federalism are key sticking points for the armed groups. The Chinese and Myanmar governments will likely need to involve the Northern Alliance in shaping plans for the CMEC or it will continue to stumble and could exacerbate the conflict.

Clashes reignite as the peace process remains stalled under an unstable ceasefire

The recent Northern Alliance attacks were carried out by three groups: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, or Kokang Army), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The Myanmar military has retaliated with bombings and attacks from helicopter gunships. Civilians have been killed by shelling, with representatives on both sides denying responsibility.

The Northern Alliance groups involved in the recent fighting are not signatories of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). They’ve claimed that their exclusion from the NCA process and other ceasefires worsened the conflict and pushed the non-signatories to violence.

The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, also has a series of bilateral ceasefires with armed groups who have resisted the NCA process, such as the United Wa State Army, but government negotiators barred the TNLA, AA and MNDAA from participating at all.

The union government has since offered to include the Northern Alliance groups in the NCA but on the condition that they agree to share territory with other ethnic armed groups. The Northern Alliance has responded primarily with violence.

The Tatmadaw declared a unilateral ceasefire in December 2018, in a bid to push the NCA process ahead. But the ceasefire excludes Rakhine State and the Northern Alliance groups have objected, saying that fighting in northern Rakhine has caused 60,000 people to flee their homes in recent months.

The Union Government has by-and-large maintained a single approach to the peace process since the NCA, refusing to address the armed groups’ demands, and the Northern Alliance hasn’t explicitly stated what it would take to bring them to the table. According to Brigadier General Tar Bone Kyaw of the TNLA, the Northern Alliance is calling for the Tatmadaw to stop committing war crimes in all ethnic areas of the country as a precondition to peace negotiations.

“If our demands are met the fighting will stop,” said Brig-Gen Tar Bone Kyaw.

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, said in June that both AA and Tatmadaw soldiers have committed war crimes in Rakhine State: indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian targets, including monasteries where displaced civilians sought shelter. 

Amnesty International has suggested the shelling in Shan State that killed civilians likely constitutes a war crime.

In the wake of the August 15th attacks, the Myanmar military has made similar accusations against the Northern Alliance. “They were more than terrorist attacks. They were an act of brutality and could be described as a war crime,” said Major General Tun Tun Nyi.

Stalled negotiations and the flawed ceasefire have contributed to an environment in which both sides are hoping to use Chinese influence to pressure the other side into compromise.

Recent clashes could scupper China and Myanmar’s plans for trade corridor 

The Northern Alliance attacks on August 15 were unprecedented in recent years for their coordination and their targeting of the training facility in Pyin Oo Lwin. But the recent clashes also have a much larger impact because they affect China and Myanmar’s plans for the CMEC. 

Under the CMEC, Myanmar will receive finance for infrastructure projects across Myanmar, from the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State to the New Yangon City project.

According to Kachin National Congress Chairman Dr M Kawn La, the Northern Alliance is now trying to increase its bargaining power with the Myanmar military by cutting off a main trade route.

“The four-member Northern Alliance… is trying to widen its ceasefire negotiation stance through military means. It seems to be planning to negotiate from the position of military strength,” said Dr M Kawn La.

The ethnic armed groups’ choice of targets represents a threat to both Myanmar and China because they disrupt the CMEC. The Northern Alliance destabilized the trade route between Mandalay and the border gate at Muse by destroying a bridge and attacking targets along the highway. The government closed the highway for ten days.

As a part of the BRI, China is constructing railways and expanding roads from Chinshwehaw to Lashio and from Muse to Mandalay. Both of the border gates that were shut down are sites for new Myanmar-China Border Economic Cooperation Zones. The Chinshwehaw Border Economic Cooperation Zones, in particular, is contentious because it sits on contested territory in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone, the site of heavy fighting in 2015 as the MNDAA attempted to retake it from the Tatmadaw. 

The projects cover thousands of hectares and were key parts of the CMEC agreements between the two countries at this year’s BRI forum.

Will the CMEC be built on an unstable peace?

Both sides, as well as analysts and international media, look to China as a possible peace broker but Beijing is far from an impartial party. Chinese officials have a vested interest in ending the violence as quickly as possible to ensure the future of the CMEC and BRI projects. 

China’s “invest first, and peace will follow” strategy may be enough to push the Union Government into granting major concessions to ethnic armed groups. But Chinese negotiators have little interest in addressing the underlying issues.

China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sun Guoxiang, told representatives from the AA, MNDAA and TNLA that Chinese leaders are demanding the Northern Alliance cease military operations and respect the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire. Guoxiang also asked that the ethnic armed groups issue a statement saying they would end their active military campaigns. It’s unlikely that the groups will respond to this pressure.

Ethnic armed groups are also leaning into the influence of Chinese officials. Guoxiang has worked to push the Tatmadaw to negotiate with the coalition of armed groups that are not signatories of the NCA, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC).

Soon after the violence began, on August 22, Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai also met with Tatmadaw head Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing to discuss how to resolve the conflict.

From the Myanmar government’s perspective, China’s influence over ethnic armed groups in Shan represents a chance to end the violence without making concessions or addressing the grievances of the Northern Alliance. But if China and Myanmar continue to push the CMEC in its current form, it risks exacerbating the conflict by signalling that the Union Government will continue business as usual, regardless of the demands of the Northern Alliance. 

The recent clashes highlight the perils of the CMEC. It is being built on contested land and the development it brings will deepen divisions and fuel instability. From war with the AA in Rakhine State, and the looming issue of rights abuses against the Rohingya, to the ongoing shelling in Shan, “invest first, and peace will follow” seems shaky at best.